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Leadership at All Levels

Breaking the Bro Code

Tricia Kagerer | December 15, 2021

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The techniques in this article are part of the GiANT Worldwide Leadership tools. The graphics shown are from its website and are used with permission. Further reproduction is prohibited.

The construction and insurance industries face a potentially catastrophic risk as the future workforce pipeline continues to erode. Despite diversity and inclusion programs and valiant efforts to fill the workplace pipeline, these historically male-dominated industries are not attracting and retaining talent successfully. This article discusses ways to attract and rebuild a workforce and how it all comes down to breaking through old barriers referred to as the "Bro-Code."

The Bro-Code is defined as outdated beliefs steeped in tradition, maintaining self-preservation and fear. Breaking the Bro-Code means abandoning these traditions. The first step is to explore the difference between prohibition and inhibition. Second, apply a tool called "Know Yourselves To Lead Yourselves" to identify antiquated behavior patterns on a personal and professional level. Third, explore three questions C-suite leaders must ask themselves to create the opportunity to intentionally move forward in action to create a new reality.

Let's begin with a bit of tool called "Who Says You Can't?"

© 2021 GiANT Worldwide,, used with permission.

"Who Says You Can't" is a tool that defines the subtle difference between prohibition and inhibition. We tend to assume outdated processes or behaviors so steeped in tradition are prohibited from change. By exploring the difference, it becomes obvious that many times, the barriers to change are invisible, brought on by tradition and culture. The tool surfaces the subtle difference that can shine a spotlight on the status quo and lead to necessary change.

What Is Prohibition?

Prohibition is an established, external restriction, an enforced barrier to action. It can be a law or a rule. In the United States, women were prohibited from voting until 1920. Some prohibitions aim for the greater good, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination. Unfortunately, removing the prohibition does not automatically result in changed behavior. It can take years to see lasting change. Prohibitions are persistent. For example, why do women to this day earn 20 percent less than men for the same work? 1 Why is the wage gap even worse for women of color? And why in 2021 do we still harbor antiquated caregiving notions? Women with caregiving responsibilities have so many conflicting duties, making it difficult to think about future opportunities. Here are some facts confirming that prohibition still limits women today.

  • According to the US Census Bureau, women lead 80 percent of the 11 million single-parent families with children under 18. One in 6 children under 18—12.5 million children—are being raised without a father, leaving 100 percent of the childcare responsibilities to the mother.
  • The cost of early childcare is more than a college education. Single mothers often spend over half of their income on housing expenses and a third on childcare.
  • Over 3 million women left the workplace due to the pandemic, citing childcare responsibilities and stress.

These barriers prohibit women from taking a risk or creating plans for their future opportunities. The pandemic forces everyone to address the outdated narrative that women are only vital in the workplace when caregiving responsibilities don't interfere. As women return to the workforce, forward-thinking leaders must recognize this as a business risk and start addressing critical issues like flexibility, job sharing, and childcare to avoid a similar scenario at the next sign of crisis.

What Is Inhibition?

Inhibition is an internal dialogue—a story we tell ourselves. In the workplace, it shows up as "they." "They told us not to change the process." Who are they? Often, nobody knows. These behavior patterns can sabotage the best of intentions and make changing antiquated norms and procedures next to impossible. For example, for years, a construction company required a job hazard analysis process. They had checklists and procedures to be completed every day. Yet, when an incident occurred, the investigation revealed that the checklist was not completed or did not cover the hazard that caused the accident.

Further exploration reveals that the process is just an exercise in pencil whipping. The team leader does what he has always done: fills out the form every morning, has people sign it, but never really looks for hazards, etc. When the attorney asks the team leader why he did it this way, he responds, "That's the way we always do it. It didn't make sense, but I didn't want to say anything, so I just kept doing it. I didn't think I was allowed to change it."

On a personal level, we all carry our wounds from experience. Maybe it's from letting down an authority figure in your life, not getting the job you wanted, never finishing a degree, or experiencing a failed or abusive relationship. We internalize this failure or fear, and an internal dialogue ensues: "I'm not good enough. I am not ready. I'm not worthy. I'm not allowed." The inner dialogue becomes an excuse to stay behind an invisible barrier.

The Bro-Code Impacts the Bros Too

Having worked in male-dominated industries for over 30 years, like construction and manufacturing, I believed that women were held back—prohibited—by society from advancing. As one of the only 1 percent of women who navigated a career into the C-suite of the construction industry, I thought I was just more resilient than most.

My mindset has changed after writing a book called The B Words and researching limiting beliefs. We have to address the legacy of prohibition and simultaneously acknowledge the legacy of inhibition to create lasting change. I've seen companies spend a fortune on diversity and inclusion initiatives that achieve limited results. Organizational leaders attempting to change the culture become frustrated because they believe that since the laws have changed and the diversity and inclusion programs are in place, they have done enough. Let's start with dispelling the limiting belief that diversity and inclusion only benefit women and minorities. The Bro-Code isn't working for the bros either. Consider the following.

  • The biggest risk for all industries in 2021 is employee burnout. 2
  • The construction and insurance industries face an enormous risk as a lack of talent creates an unstable future.
  • Even before the pandemic, our generation of Americans is the most addicted, depressed, and medicated adults in US history. 3
  • A new research study shows that empathy is now the number one leadership skill as everyone is still recovering from our lives being turned upside down by the pandemic. According to a study by Qualtrics, 42 percent of people have experienced a decline in mental health. While 67 percent of people report experiencing increased stress, and 57 percent have increased anxiety. The study also revealed that when leaders were perceived as empathetic, people reported overall more significant levels of mental health. 4 A study by Catalyst found that empathy produces increased innovation, employee engagement, employee retention, inclusivity, and work-life responsibilities. 5

Organizations rely heavily on employee-assistance plans to support those suffering from burnout and stress. Unfortunately, these plans are often an underutilized resource, especially in male-dominated industries where men are conditioned to muddle through and never reach out for help. Many organizations have adopted parental leave policies for everyone, but fewer than 50 percent of men avail themselves of the opportunity. 6 Men report a fear of being stigmatized by employers and left out of future opportunities.

© 2021 GiANT Worldwide,, used with permission.

Know Yourself To Lead Yourself

"Know Yourself To Lead Yourself" is a simple foundational tool people can use to help answer the question, "What's it like to be on the other side of me—and why?" It provides a simple, visual way to consistently understand how your tendencies and actions impact others and affect your reality. You can either start at the bottom by identifying your tendencies (i.e., natural and ingrained patterns of action) and working around to reality or start with your current reality and work backward to get to the root cause of a situation. Once you identify the pattern, you can intentionally choose healthier, more effective actions that create the relationships, environment, and results you want. Let's put this powerful tool into action using a personal example.

I have a natural tendency to focus on the negative and never be satisfied with an accomplishment. As a writer and speaker, after a presentation, my action is to be self-deprecating and critical if I don't think I did as well as I hoped. The action is for the voice in my head (yes, we all have one) to start an internal self-critical dialogue. The consequence was to self-select out of future speaking opportunities. This creates my reality—feeling beaten down. Self-talk turns to "I wish I could." By recognizing this tendency, I tried something different. I acknowledged the fear and self-doubt and sent in the speaker application anyway, changing the consequence. The reality is I continue to move forward, learning and growing from each experience, and my professional life is more fulfilling.

Let's apply the "Know Yourself To Lead Yourself" tool to breaking the Bro-Code. Historically, leadership sought out people with similar backgrounds and experiences to fill leadership roles and ultimately run organizations. This is supported by the evidence that only 1.4 percent of women in the United States are in the C-suite of construction companies. 7 Currently, only seven insurance industry CEOs are women. 8

The tendency creates the action; despite diversity and inclusion efforts, awareness, bias training, human resource policies, laws, and rule changes, the C-suite stays the same. The action is to continue to promote men. It may or may not be intentional. It could stem from various reasons, including the candidate pool, convenience, comfort, etc. For whatever reason, the consequence is that the leaders with similar life experiences and ideologies continue to rise to leadership roles. The reality is the C-suite continues to be at risk of creating an echo chamber where everyone agrees with one another behind the powerful doors.

Meanwhile, in the real world, where the workforce resides, full of different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicity, and challenges, the work expectations and societal norms continue to evolve and change. The current young generation of future leaders, regardless of gender, have changed their expectations of work, actively seeking out opportunities where they can soar in their career while still having time to create a personal life. What people are willing to tolerate is changing. The disconnect perpetuates the labor shortage, and the cycle continues.

The Wall of Self-Preservation

© 2021 GiANT Worldwide,, used with permission.

One of the most significant barriers to innovative leadership is when leaders create a wall of self-preservation. The wall begins in the "comfort zone" that limits creative thinking and innovation. Creating a seat at the C-suite table for someone with a different background, gender, ethnicity, or culture requires intentionality and strategic thinking, which are the opposite of maintaining a comfort zone. To break through these tendencies and overcome self-preservation, leaders must ask themselves three powerful questions.

  • What are you trying to hide?
  • What are you afraid of losing?
  • What are you trying to prove and to whom?

These questions help leaders understand their tendencies and fears that can undermine influence, creating different actions resulting in a new reality and bringing down the ancient walls that hold back progress. The goal of the wall of self-preservation is to develop intentional thinking and awareness so that the potential to influence change is up for consideration. This simple framework will build more effective, productive, and empathic workplace cultures and maximize a leader's influence and opportunity.


The C-suite leaders bold enough to create these open, dynamic workplace cultures will thrive. As other organizations embrace diversity, inclusion, flexibility, and empathy, the organizations steeped in micromanagement tendencies bonded to the Bro-Code may become obsolete. They will not be able to attract and retain top talent or their workforce. By recognizing the difference between prohibition and inhibition, identifying tendencies that ultimately lead to outdated consequences, and exploring the three questions to break through self-preservation, we reduce the risk of the status quo and break free from the ancient, broken Bro-Code.

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3 "Mental Health by the Numbers," National Alliance on Mental Illness, March 2021.
4 "The Other COVID-19 Crisis: Mental Health," Qualtrics, April 14, 2020.
5 Tara Van Bommel, "The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond," Catalyst, 2021.
7 Becky Schultz, "Glass Ceiling in Construction Continues as Female CEOs Lag Globally," For Construction Pros, February 17, 2021.
8 Hailey Ross and Jason Woleben, "Female Insurance Leaders Work Against Odds To Open Doors for Other Women," S&P Global Market Intelligence, November 17, 2020.