Let’s be honest: Do you sometimes get frustrated with a co-worker because they are acting “like such a woman” or “like such a man”—whichever is the opposite of yourself?
Although it may not be politically correct to declare it, you can’t tell me that there isn’t a difference between the sexes and how we behave and communicate. Consider this difference: Men use public restrooms solely for biological reasons and get in and out as soon as possible. For women, public restrooms can be social lounges, and a trip can be an excuse to strike up conversation.
Or let’s review how we communicate with same-gender friends. When Cathy, Susan, Linda and Deb go out for lunch, they call each other Cathy, Susan, Linda and Deb. But when Mike, Bob, Dave and Jeff go out for lunch, they call each other Dude, Brother, Big Guy or Stud. On a girl’s night out, women talk about everything going on in their lives and then likely follow up the next day with phone calls, texts and Facebook posts. Men use about 25 words all evening, including “beer,” “more beer,” “football,” “basketball,” “golf,” “ultimate fighting,” “hockey,” “burgers” and “fries”—and then we don’t have to speak to each other again for months.
Whether or not you appreciate these observations and my attempt at humor, you have probably noticed that differences in gender communication can cause serious trouble in the workplace. Years ago I read a book titled He Said, She Said, which became required reading for law school students. It taught that during direct and cross-examination in a trial, the way questions were formed and how certain words were used could elicit different responses depending upon the witness’ gender. For instance, the word “why” is threatening to males, making them feel second-guessed, but is perceived benignly by women.
While it is probably risky to generalize about gender differences in communications, be aware that gender may be the reason your organization has trouble making decisions and getting things done. Let’s look at five examples and some actions business leaders can take to improve communication:
Men typically ask questions to get tangible information, while women sometimes ask questions simply to demonstrate interest and build relationships. Men may react uncomfortably to this kind of questioning.
Action: Make decision-making more effective by creating a culture that encourages and respects fully engaged discussions, deliberations and questions. It’s important for everyone to get and give clarification and arrive at a consensus (albeit through different processes).
Women tend to soften instructions or be less direct than men. Studies have shown that women tend to be more relationship-oriented than men and will take time to build relationships, while men are more task-oriented and view relationship-building as something embedded in work on a project. Also, societal norms dictate that women should avoid conflict and maintain harmony, which can translate into statements that are hedged with “if you don’t mind” or “it might be a good idea if you … .” Men may erroneously interpret these statements to mean that women are not confident in their directives. On the other hand, when men are direct in their demands or directives, women may misinterpret them as being arrogant or supercilious.
Action: Coach women to be more direct and coach men to be more sensitive to feelings and the human element in accomplishing tasks.
Men generally process information internally, then declare a decision or provide a solution. Contrarily, women often analyze by exploring and discussing options before making a decision. This difference can cause trouble in the workplace if women misinterpret the male process as being unresponsive or ignoring input, and if men misinterpret the female decision-making process as seeking their approval.
Action: Create a culture where the decision-making styles are understood and respected. While this requires more patience, you reach the appropriate solution.
Gender differences can influence the outcome of negotiations. Research shows that men’s behavior is generally more competitive, or self-interested, than that of women, so in negotiations men command more favorable outcomes on average. According UC-Berkeley research, men are thought to be “rational, assertive and highly protective of their own interests . . . women on the other hand, are thought to be more passive, emotional and accommodating of other’s needs.”
Action: Be aware of these stereotypes during negotiations and adapt strategies accordingly. For example, men may be assigned to negotiating an acquisition, but women may be better qualified for integration of the transaction.
Although studies show that women generally talk more than men, the opposite is true in meetings. In a group, men take up more time talking than women do, and women try to make sure there is equality. In general, men interrupt and talk over women more often than women interrupt men. Non-verbal communication also differs: Women nod their heads to indicate they are listening, whether they agree or not, while a head nod unequivocally means agreement to a man. These miscommunications can cause conflict on teams when people aren’t listening to each other and/or are misinterpreting body language.
Action: To avoid team breakdown, allow minimal interruptions, assure more equal talk time and value mutual respect on your team regardless of gender. Don’t let men dominate the discussion and encourage women to speak up at meetings.
Business relationships are built on communication, and the way we communicate is often dictated by our gender. This doesn’t mean one way is better than another; it just means we must learn to understand each other and resist jumping to the wrong conclusion. And when gender differences in communication cause you to make a mistake, if you are a woman, you will admit it, and if you’re a man . . . well, we all know the answer to that.
Mark W. Sheffert (email@example.com) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance and litigation advisory firm.