I was thinking about hitting the glass ceiling the other day. Not because I live in an architecturally bizarre house! It’s because I came across an article about the gender differences in business, called Don’t Fret. Just Ask for What You Need., by Peggy Klaus.
Her point was that not only do women still lag behind men in reaching senior management positions in business (according to her 2010 research, a stunningly low 14.4 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies were held by women), the way in which they communicate is problematic. Women, she suggests, hit the proverbial glass ceiling because they are uncomfortable being direct communicators.
There are reams written about how women and men communicate differently, which includes the subtleties of interpreting non-verbal communication differently. (Simma Lieberman’s article, Gender Communication Differences and Strategies touches on this interesting topic.)
But here’s a devil’s advocate question for you: do men and women really communicate in such extremely different ways? In other words, are most men secure, confident and unafraid to ask for what they need, while most women dither endlessly, politely, and insecurely?
Frankly, I don’t think so. In my own business life I tend to be fairly forthright. If someone says something with which I really disagree, I tell her/him so. Politely, but directly! If I need something from someone, ditto. And I know other men and women who contradict the gender/communication stereotype as well. I’m not saying the stereotype is totally without foundation. But, I do think that people are more complex and life is more nuanced than the idea that we are virtually on different planets, when it comes to communication styles. (An idea that sprung from John Gray’s massive bestseller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.)
I’m not alone in questioning prevailing gender-based communication ideas. Professor Deborah Cameron, in her book The Myth of Mars and Venus suggests that we need to recognize that within each gender there are as many differences (and similarities), as there are between men and women.
So when it comes to how you communicate in the workplace, here’s what I recommend. Rather than concerning yourself that communication style (yours or someone else’s) is rooted in gender, take it on a case-by-case, individual basis. And try operating from some fundamental principles of good workplace communication, regardless of gender.
The Language Lab’s Fundamental Principles of Good Workplace Communication:
- Be a Straight Shooter: Speak up for what you believe in; say what you need to say, ask what you need to ask. If you (regardless of gender) find this difficult, practice at home, then try it out in the workplace. You’ll be amazed how speaking simply and directly can become easier – and get results.
- Be a Good Listener: The art of productive conversation is at least as much about listening as it is about talking. Hear your colleagues and bosses out. Consider their ideas thoughtfully. Don’t close your mind based on your own assumptions about how others think and communicate.
- Be a Smart Interviewer: Ask simple, direct questions. If you don’t understand something someone says, ask her/him for clarification. If you sense you are not being understood, encourage your colleagues to ask you questions.
- Be a Keen Observer: Don’t become so engrossed in your own thoughts, ideas, concerns that you fail to observe the communications styles of the people around you. Recognize that sometimes you have to change your own communication style to meet someone else’s halfway. Doing so may mean acting more enthusiastic than you feel, or conversely, more introspective than you actually feel. Consider learning more about Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which goes into this area of communication more deeply. It may help your workplace communication become more positive and healthy. (NLP Canada Inc. is one possible starting place for a better understanding of NLP).
Let us know what you think: are men really from Mars? Are women really from Venus? Does the way we communicate really break down along gender lines?