From romantic comedies to self help books like “Men are from Mars women are from Venus”, the challenges of communication between men and women have received a lot of coverage. Whilst misunderstandings and different approaches are the stuff of comedy in the movies, in the workplace the repercussions of fraught communications between genders can be serious.

A number of experts have explored how women and men communicate differently in the workplace. In this article we discuss some of the key ways in which men and women communicate differently in the workplace and use some case studies to demonstrate how a better understanding of these different approaches can reduce the risk of workplace complaints.

Why is this stuff worth knowing?

The short answer is that the more we work to understand each other’s differences in the workplace, the more harmonious and hence the more productive the workplace will be. Statistics from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency[1] show that women comprise 45.7% of all employees, of whom 53.9% work full time (24.6% of all employees) and 46.1% work part time (21.1% of all employees) so the numbers of men and women in the workplace is pretty even (albeit working in different capacities). Hence the more we understand each other the better it will be for everyone.

Dr Pat Heim’s Gender Differences in the workplace

Dr. Pat Heim CEO, and bestselling author, has become recognized internationally as the expert in the area of gender differences in the workplace. She has published several books and DVDs on the subject.

According to the research conducted by Heim, men and women behave according to two separate cultural rules about what feels comfortable. According to Heim, learning the cultural differences which define what is “right” for men and women and maintaining a good sense of humour is the first step towards more meaningful communication between the genders.

Below we set out a summary of some of the key points she makes:

Hierarchies v teams

Dr Heim’s theory is that from the time they are children, men and women are encouraged to see the world in different ways and they carry these ideas into the workplace.

Boys learn how to be aggressive, how to deal with conflict and competition, how to win and lose and how to be leaders and take risks. Girls are encouraged to be cooperative and supportive of one another, to build and preserve relationships, avoid risks and be fair to all.

The flow on effect of this Heim argues, is that in the work environment men are comfortable with hierarchical structures which have often been learnt from playing sport, where each person has clear roles and the lines of authority are defined. Men tend to see each member of the team as having distinct role to play. Women on the other hand prefer flat structures at work. They work by forming relationships to improve communication. They view their responsibility as a team player as being willing to help out anyone on the field. Women will ask questions to try and find out the information they need to get the job done, and this can often be seen as questioning their male superiors. In the work we do at Worklogic we have seen the hierarchies v teams dynamic give rise to problems in a number of settings.

CASE STUDY

John and Lisa were working together on a new project marketing a new software product. Their boss, David had designated them specific tasks to do. Lisa went back to David several times to clarify aspects of her task.

Whilst Lisa was researching her part of the project she spoke to other people who worked in their area. Angie gave Lisa some PowerPoint presentations she had done for a client in the same industry and Beth suggested they go out for a coffee to talk about how she had approached a similar project. Lisa completed her task and offered David some additional information that was relevant to John’s. John completed his task without consulting anyone else.

To Lisa’s frustration, David viewed John’s contribution more favourably because he had done only what was asked, he had stuck to his designated role within the team. David thought that Lisa asked too many questions, had wasted time and tried to delegate her work, when she believed she had done the right thing by getting input from other members of the team, which ultimately enabled her to provide a piece of work that went beyond what was asked.

Learnings for Lisa: She should have explained to David why she had approached the project the way she did and the benefits her approach brought to the project.

Learnings for David: Lisa’s approach was different from John’s but ultimately brought positive results. David needs to stay open minded about the route taken to get to the ultimate result.

Process focus v Goal focus

Dr Heim’s research also suggests that women prefer to discuss or process issues whereas men are more interested in “fixing” or “killing” issues. Men tend to be interested in achieving a specific goal, whereas women are interested in the process of getting there.

Women will talk through the thought process behind their decisions before giving their “bottom line” answer whilst men will process internally, giving the bottom line answer and only provide further background detail if asked.

This can lead to a perception in men that women are overly talkative and that they are looking for approval.

Women in turn may perceive men as being unresponsive to suggestions when in fact they are processing the information before answering.

In our work we see some great live examples of this difference in the area of email communications between men and women. Men online want to get straight to the point and end the conversation. Their exchanges tend to be briefer and more laconic, lacking in “warmth” whereas women provide more detail and may make things more complex by asking questions or requesting further information.

CASE STUDY

Worklogic was asked to investigate a complaint by one board director against another. The female board director accused the male director of being deliberately rude and unresponsive to her proposals. She accused him of giving one word or two word answers to her emails and not addressing her in person. He on the other hand considered her emails flowery and embellished and felt that he was responding in an efficient and expedient manner and not providing additional information that wasn’t required or that could be discussed at the meetings.

Emails, texts and tweets can be a minefield for misunderstandings. The Heim Group offers tips for both genders to use to reduce the risk of misunderstandings online:

For men: Use complete sentences in response to a query, otherwise you come across as being terse or too busy. Reply to emails promptly.

For women: Use a professional tone and avoid personal language. Be decisive and avoid tentative and unclear requests. The use of emoticons and abbreviations can be seen as too cutesy and not taken seriously.

Linear v multiple focus

Heim’s other proposition is around that over-utilised term “multi tasking”. Her premise is that men usually lead linear lives, they go to school ,they might study, then they go to work however women usually live multiple lives, they got to school, get married, have a child, go back to school, have another child, work part time, work full time.

This distinction can lead to problems in the workplace when men perceive women who multi task as having too much going on and distracted. Women on the other hand see men who are doing one thing at a time as not working hard.

Many of the complaints we see arise from women and men not acknowledging this difference in approach. For example women are often seen as being distracted from the main game because they are leaving to pick up children early, or needing time off to care for an elderly parent. When men make these complaints the common response we see is “oh well it’s alright for him, he just stays in his office and works on that one project and never helps me or my colleagues.”

Again this is another example of a difference in approach, and need not affect outcome or productivity.

A healthy balance

Whilst being aware of these differences makes for a more informed workplace it is too prescriptive to say that women always behave in one way and men another and in fact both genders will display “feminine” or “masculine” characteristics. In order to achieve a healthy balance in the workplace the answer is not to employ fifty percent men and fifty percent women but to ensure that these work styles or characteristics are evenly represented, so that the workplace can harness the best traits of both. The trick is to have people appreciate there are many ways to achieve the end and “my way” is not always the right way.

This notion was supported by a study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of business in 2011[2], which found that women who are aggressive, assertive and confident but can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances get more promotions than either men or other women.

The survey researchers described these women as “chameleons” – who adapted their actions according to the social environment they found themselves in.

Summary

So where does all this leave us?

We all recognise the value in understanding cultural differences in the work environment – we know that by understanding Japanese business etiquette for example the paths of communication is likely to be smoother and more successful. Understanding the impact that gender has on communication styles is one more way that workplaces can gain a more sophisticated understanding of their most valuable asset – their people.


[1] See www.wgea.gov.au
[2] www.stanford.edu/group/knowledgebase
www.theheimgroup.com

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