Stature, the Great Inequaliser?

Some six or seven years ago, while attending an Internet World conference, I experienced an odd lesson, one that --while seemingly innocuous at first-- is now at the core of how I deal with people.

It was at a small pub around the corner from the conference centre where I went to find some orange juice and some air-conditioning. The room was packed, and I was called over to a table by a VP of Marketing for a large tech company, whom I had met the night before. There were four of us seated: the VP, a very tall man like myself, and with a friendly smile and cheerful disposition; a shortish human resources director, whose sharp wit and sarcastic attitude made his presence both enjoyable and insufferable; and a Catholic priest, a webmaster for a number of progressive parishes down south, and whose eyes fixed upon you for just long enough to instill the fear he might be reading your mind.

After fifteen minutes, we still hadn't managed to flag down the single disheveled waitress, who buzzed among the tables, tripped among the out-strewn legs, and clacked beer glasses together among her fingers, four at a time, for rushing back to the crowded bar.

The HR director kept waving his arm anytime she came near, but failed to attract her. Finally he picked up a pecan from the bowl on the table and flung it at her, catching her on the back of the head. She turned around, glared in our direction, and came over to get our order.

"Listen, honey," the director said, drawing her close, "we've been here a long time, and we're thirsty and cranky. I know you want a good tip, but you're not going to get one unless you cha-cha and get us some beer pronto."

The VP, who was seated on the other side of her, gave a wide grin and soothed her: "Don't worry, miss, you just do your best, and we'll make sure the grouch leaves enough to start a college fund."

After she left, the priest commended the VP on his Christian friendliness. The VP responded, "It's a good way to manage people." The HR director disagreed, and a debate started amongst us.

The priest maintained that showing signs of charity, generosity and compassion ensured the best results. The director maintained that people would take advantage of their managers if that were the case; instead, he advocated being firm, showing no "wiggle room", and ruling with an iron first. The VP took a back seat to the discussion, but emphasised the need to strike a balance.

Later that day, I escaped from a boring sales pitch session to find the VP near a garbage can, throwing out all the useless notes and pamphlets. He shared a unique perspective. "Big guys like you and me have to do things a little differently," he said. "Everybody assumes that, because of our size, we can kick their butt. That makes them afraid. But when we open up, act nice, allay their fears, we put them at ease and can count on their support, even though they still see us as an authority figure in a way. Short guys, like the HR director, they need to act feisty, or no one will take them seriously. That attitude comes from needing to be noticed, and from forcing their wills on people, since they can't rely on their size. It's not fair at all, but it's true."

I thought back to my university days of working as an Interpretative Guide for Parks Canada. Picture me: 6'4", beard, shoulder-length hair, looking rather more like a mountain man than a happy-go-lucky hippie. It didn't take long before I noticed people were staying away from me, and instead went to the other guides. I learned to be friendlier, to greet people with a smile and be helpful. In fact, my supervisor's evaluation went something like, "Doug's intimidating presence does much to scare visitors at first, but his approachable manner soon breaks down those barriers, and then he becomes one of the most requested guides." Another guide, a smallish wisp of a girl, became bossy and demanding, and eventually (I'm told) became a production supervisor with a large multinational. There were parallels.

As a project manager, I can be firm when needed. But it isn't needed very often, as long as I treat people nicely and fairly, infuse them with the necessary authority and sense of responsibility, and ensure that I'm there when they need my support. But I wonder how I might be managing people differently if I was built differently...?

What do you folks think? Do you see evidence of this in your workplace? Is physical size still important, despite our modern notions of equality?

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Equality?

When reading your journal, I began to make the same comparisons in my workplace, but it wasn't until your last line that I thought about the equality issue.

I work for my father who is, like you, a tall, built man who has scared away many past boyfriends. :) He has been able to use his stature to scare his kids into obeying him (don't all fathers wish a simple "look" would get their kids to behave?). And when I started working for him, I still had that feeling that even though he is my dad, he could still shut me up by simply giving me "the look." I realized (after a few years) that he considers me his equal in business and that I have as much say as he does. But, it took a while for us to warm up to the idea. Just like people warming up to you as a Guide.

Before I worked for my dad, I was a Project Coordinator at a local cell phone company. I was one of the youngest on the project team and I am female (it was a 95% male team). And, yes, I definitely had to prove my position in the team. I had to prove that I was smart enough to be in the position and also prove that the rest of the team did have to report to me. But, I would say within two months, I had done what I needed to do and most of the team ended up respecting me, my thoughts and my ideas. Since I left the company, they have tried numerous times to get me back. (pat myself on the back) And that feels good to me! It shows I did what I was supposed to do in that position.

I guess the long and short of it is, I do not know if I have had to prove myself and my abilities because of stature and gender, or is it just simply that we have a choice of how we treat people? The VP chose to treat people the way he did, while others treat people on a more equal level...

Not sure if any of that made sense... But, I really enjoyed your writing Doug - thank you!

nay nay

Size does matter

Although I am not 6'4", I am taller than average. I have had the same experiences with people reacting first to my size and later to who I am. At times this has been an advantage, like when working with young airmen in difficult situations, it added to the authority I could project. My 'presence' in uniform was intimidating to a lot of the younger individuals in the units I was assigned to over the years. I once heard an airman say, looking at a picture of me on a "who is who", wall, "I would hate to have to work for him! He looks like a hard case."

But for the most part it has been an obstacle. I have to get past the initial reaction to get things done, reduce the fear (?). It doesn't seem to matter if I am trying to lead or follow, the size issue comes to the foreground, even with people I work with on a daily basis. I have gotten better at getting around this over the years but it is something I can almost count on having to deal with in every case where I have to establish new relations with people.

One thing I have noticed, I don't seem to have the same reaction to people, both men and women, who are taller than I am. Maybe because I have to deal with the issue so often myself, it doesn't become a factor with others.

Size (and gender) still matter

Yep, I have to say that as the only woman in my group, and as the shortest person in my group, I constantly have to struggle to get respected or even listened to. This is a generalization of my overall impression, though. At least 50% of the guys on my team don't seem to have this issue. Unfortunately, the ones who do are the most vocal!

I think all this is leftover from our caveman days, when the biggest, baddest caveperson got the best food and other resources.

This is absolutely true. And

This is absolutely true. And it works both ways.

The Dilbert blog has a nice bit about a similar theme here:

http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2006/10/i_go...

The Play Within a Play...

Interesting senario. A young woman, trying to do her job under difficult circumstances is harrassed by a borish HR and no one in the goup pulls him up on it? As a Humanist, I also fail to see how treating someone with respect has anything to do with Christian friendliness, charity or compassion. The orange juice is a product and the waitress is providing a service. I can see how in HR one needs to be firm, however this was blatant abuse.

I think the problem is too many people conflate power and fear with respect and best practice. The HR Director will always have problems. not because he is short but because he is at conflict with the rest of society. The VP on the other hand, has learn how to deal with people although it is interesting to see how all three felt superior to the waitress (shown through their comments).

Are we equal? Only in our egocentric stupidity. For those of us who wish to beat our 'programming' I suggest two things: Watch The Seagull and read a good book on critical thinking... And for those who do not; Jedi mind control works wonders. ;)

The IT field

I think that gender issues are very dependent on the field, but unfortunately, the height issue is accurate.

I think it's a subconscious reaction that tags short people as children. It takes a lot of work to overcome the initial reaction that makes people think we're not competent or capable.

And if you think I'm just imagining things, I tried an experiment. When I came back from a vacation, I wore 3" pumps for work consistently. Not only did I get more respect from my peers, I got a promotion. Go figure...

Paper Wraps Shoes...

..."I tried an experiment. When I came back from a vacation, I wore 3" pumps for work consistently. Not only did I get more respect from my peers, I got a promotion"...

How did you feel when you put the pumps on? Taller, more confident? I do not think you are imagining things. However, an interesting side effect of wearing heels is of course they usual make one straighten up and therefore appear more confident. Hmmm, not unlike using a chambon on one's Dean (Head of Faculty). Do you think this may have something to do with your self-image rather than just hight?

stature-schmature

I am 5 feet tall, female, and teach 9th grade algebra. Most of the time, I am the shortest person in the room. All of you management types out there have it easy working with adults! Try to get a room full of hormonal 14 and 15 year olds to do math for 90 minutes at a time and tell me that stature matters. It's about relationships and feeling safe in large groups. It is possible to create a healthy, supportive working environment without becoming a total jerk, no matter how tall you are. Just last week, I had to leave my classroom for a few minutes during the middle of the class. When I came back, a student had gone to the board and continued where I left off, then called on another student to take over for her when she was done! The class continued to work and take notes without skipping a beat. I was so proud! It takes hard-work to create and run a productive environment like this, but it is much easier than screaming, insulting, or trying to control people (of any age). Short people who become Napoleons as managers are often just insecure.

I teach adult learning...

... and i am impressed with you! I deal with 18+ year olds and teach them phone support, and it's amazing the grade school attitude they bring into class. Wish you were nearby, I'd come take notes. :)

There's definitely some truth here..

When I first came into the Air Force, I worked for a wing commander (head of about 5000 people) who was a Colonel that stood about 6'4. He was intimidating in size and extremely competent. He was a stickler for setting high goals then exceeding them. He was competitive in every manner. But somehow he managed to infuse his enthusiasm for excellence in everyone. His entire staff was over 6'1. And just as competent. Athough I worked for a lot of excellent commanders throughout my career before I retired he stood out as the finest. He retired with 4 stars. His number two man from those days retired with 3 stars. I often wondered if his size alone had a lot to do with his success. I think like you he actually went out of his way to ingratiate people, which made his combination of size and competence even more effective. His boss at the time, General Creech, was an average sized guy, but extremely competent as well. I guess I believe that although the tall guy's size may have provided him the opportunity, but he still needed the goods to succeed, which he had in spades. The shorter guys, that succeeded were usualy extremely competent, but in some cases resorted to some political maneuvering as well to succeed or needed something else help them advance. Whether they didn't trust the system, themselves or just felt they needed an additional edge, I'm not sure. But I always enjoyed working for the taller guys, they had nothing else to prove, and I didn't have to worry about them having other agendas.