Gay Men as Workplace Supervisors: Survival Tips for When You’re the New Boss

For over 24 years, my specialty as a psychotherapist and life/business coach has been working with gay men.  For many topics, treating or coaching a gay man is very similar to how a woman (straight or gay) or a straight man would be.  However, “cultural competency” in working with gay men demands that the provider know, understand, appreciate, and apply the special considerations working with this population versus others.  It’s not enough to be LGBT-friendly, such as those who “have nothing against” the LGBT community, you also must be affirmative and competent in knowing the special considerations that working with LGBT clients in general and gay men in particular brings.

Take executive or business coaching: Many straight guys can be managers, supervisors, or executives, or open their own business. But for gay men, we have to overcome an extra “layer” of challenge when we try to ambitious things like these because, unlike straight men, we live in a society that has historically put us down as entire group, told us we were “less than” (especially in the eyes of the law, and having equal legal civil rights), and even bullied/abused us, from mildly to severely.  It’s harder to have the confidence to lead an organization, command respect from employees, form relationships with customers and the community, and make tough decisions when we have grown up with seemingly ubiquitous negative messages.  Still, I have worked with hundreds of gay men in my office who have achieved amazing things with their professional lives, in many different fields, from law to entertainment to medicine to real estate to finance.  How did they do this?  It’s likely because they have learned to overcome any hardships they had in their past and built a self-confidence as adults that might not have had growing up.  One way to build this confidence is through support and experience.  

When you first get your opportunity to be a supervisor, manager, director, VP, or CEO, it’s common for some of the “old tapes” to play in your head.  There can be a part of your internal monologue, or what therapists call your “cognitive schema”, where your self-esteem might be a little vulnerable, especially if in your past you have endured abuse, bullying, criticism, or discrimination for being gay.  These momentary misgivings are normal, but you don’t want these maladaptive thoughts and feelings to undermine your confidence and your performance at work.  Having support to identify – and then modify – what your self-esteem beliefs are at your core can be enormously helpful for your self-confidence, so that it becomes a solid part of you.

It’s also important to have self-confidence when you have to make the tough decisions on how to spend organizational resources such as money, staff time, or equipment.  That confidence will help you use good judgment.  You also need this confidence when people who work “for” you in the organization challenge you.  If you are “out” at work (and I encourage you to be!), we have to accept the reality that once in a while some staff will not respect you or “take orders” from you as a gay man, because they believe gay men are not “really men” deserving of respect.  (A similar plot was played out on the period piece, “Mad Men” on AMC, where a man in the 1960’s objected to reporting to a woman.  Another example would be that some white racists will not “take orders” from a supervisor of color.)  This is illegal discrimination, and calls for severe discipline of the employee, even if it is staff acting out against a manager.  If you’re too invested in being “liked” by everyone because on some level (probably unconscious) you’re “embarrassed” for being gay, it will undermine your ability to set limits.  No one deserves discrimination, no matter what their position. Cultivating your own self-confidence will help you set limits, as well as to hold your own against the competition, or the highest executives who may question you, or other challenges you might face about your leadership.

Gay men becoming supervisors or other leaders in an office happens when a guy is in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and is part of the Developmental Psychology that I use in my practice.  After college and your initial entry-level jobs, guys often find it’s time for them to move up, or they have been targeted for promotion due to good initial performance.  Because gay men sometimes like to be “over-achievers” (and some would say we do this to deflect others’ criticism for being gay in the first place), gay men can be excellent leaders and include CEO’s (like Apple’s Tim Cook), media moguls (David Geffen, Barry Diller), Hollywood directors (George Cukor, Bryan Singer), and Congressmen (Brian Sims of Pennsylvania).  Working in Los Angeles, I’ve worked with some major executives who are gay men, but I also work with guys are struggling to “get ahead”, and they are in need of coaching to take their career (and their self-confidence!) to new heights.  All that I do with clients in executive coaching would be enough for a series of blog articles, at least, but here are some initial tips for gay men who are becoming supervisors in the workplace for the first time:

  1. Know The Mission: You have to know the overall purpose and mission of the business, organization, or department that you are now running.  How does the group you lead fit in within the bigger picture of your field?  How does it do in relation to its competition?  How do you measure the success (or failure) of the group or division that you lead?  What are the current Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (called “SWOT analysis”) of your group?  If you have a grasp on these, you’re on your way to understanding a road map for success.
  2. Know Your Resources: What are your human resources (staff) for your group? Is that adequate, or do you have to advocate for hiring more staff (and talk others into the funding to get them)?  What are your non-human resources, such as equipment and space?  What is your overall divisional budget, and what are the sub-budgets the “roll up” into larger ones?  Is there anything you see in your budgets that could be done more efficiently (cheaply) but still keeping quality?  Remember, success in an organization really comes down to two things that raise or lower your “stock price”:  Do you save the organization money but doing things more efficiently, or do you earn the organization money by bringing in new revenue?  In the private sector, this might be related to cutting costs or increasing sales (or perhaps market share).  In the public or non-profit sector, it’s about getting money through government grants or raising money in donations, or increasing the organization’s influence, reputation, and profile in the community.  (I once worked in the non-profit world with someone whom everyone around her, in the organization and in the community, hated with a passion due to her angry/haughty demeanor, belittling comments, and racist attitudes.  But, she was good at bringing in government grant money to the organization, so her bosses kept her on.)  It’s just the Law of the Jungle to learn early:  in any setting, the most important thing that affects your job security and your status is your ability to positively affect revenue in the grand scheme consistently over time.
  3. Know Your Supports: It can feel “lonely at the top”.  You can’t confide in those above you, organizationally, because you report to them.  You can’t confide in subordinates, because they have to respect you when you assign, prioritize, and evaluate their work.  It’s best to have outside supports such as a “kitchen cabinet” of other supervisor/executive friends who are not competitors, or a confidante like a partner or coach (I serve this function of the “confidential confidante” to many executive figures, locally and nation-wide, due to the strictly confidential nature of therapy and coaching).
  4. Know Your Limits: It’s important to know your own expectations of yourself and others, and to communicate those.  The first time I was a supervisor, I made a grave mistake of wanting to be “liked” so much that I didn’t closely supervise some staff.  Later, I learned that some staff were complaining that I was “overlooking” that other staff were taking 3-hour lunches and playing loose with their work start-and-stop times, and demanding that I intervene.  I had been so busy with my own contracts and budgets that I wasn’t keeping an eye on the rest of the organization, and trusted a little “too” much.  From then on, I monitored what was going on more carefully, and set limits on what was acceptable – and what was not.  Speaking of which, knowing how to hire, promote, and discipline/terminate staff is a tricky business these days.  Always make these decisions according to organizational/company policy, and in consultation with any human resources department.  There are many legal implications for having staff in any setting, and you want to always know, follow, and enforce laws that protect you and the organization regarding state labor law, sexual harassment, discrimination, fiscal responsibility, public relations, health and safety, and other considerations.
  5. Know Your Community: Even if you have increasingly “made to the top” of your own organization, make sure you are regularly networking with others. If there should be a recession or some economic/business emergency, you could be a highly-regarded executive one day, and Joe Unemployed the next.  As Heidi Klum says about fashion, “One day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out.”  Don’t be the wide-tie of executives:  Make sure you’re doing regular networking lunches, community events for professionals, social events, charitable work, and other activities that make you known OUTSIDE of your own organization, so that you have a good reputation and function even when you’re not “doing what you do” at work.  This will help you land on your feet if you should ever lose your job (which happens a lot with managers and executives).
  6. Know Your Life: Get support from watching TED talks, attending conferences and seminars, and investing in your own knowledge and personal/professional growth.  I always recommend Jack Canfield’s book, “The Success Principles”, and I use that book as a kind of “text book” for my executive coaching work.  It helps keep your mind – and your skills, and your spirit – in a really good space for doing your best work, without burning out. Part of the coaching I do is to help guys balance their responsibilities at work (which can be daunting, from the small scale to multi-million dollar deals) with still being a human being, a partner, a son, a brother, an uncle, a neighbor, perhaps a parent, and a friend to others.  It’s very easy to be “all work and no play” when you’re a dedicated executive, and often you need outside perspective to achieve some balance.  This is done in my work through coaching principles, as well as through Mindfulness, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and Existential Therapy to address your mind, body, and spirit – as well as your wallet (now, and for the future).

These tips just introduce you to what therapy for gay male executives and coaching for gay men in the workplace can be like.  For help with your specific position, or the dilemmas you face in your own role/organization, considering working with me.  More information (and more articles on this and related topics) is here on my website, www.GayTherapyLA.com.  

 
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