Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Are You Stuck in Gender Communication Traps at Work?

I grew up with two sisters and 10 girl cousins. No boys. Then I got married and had two boys. The only female in my house for years besides me has been the dog. So when the authors I interviewed below for my Gannett column told me that men and women communicate differently, I knew what they were saying. Boy, did I know.

Anyone who has been married or in a long-term relationship with the opposite sex might readily agree that men and women communicate differently. Unfortunately, say the authors of a new book on managing your career, those differing communications styles at work can become “gender traps” that hurt your chances of assuming a leadership role on the job.

“While we as men and women should embrace and celebrate our differences, the truth is that sometimes there are misinterpretations of what we’re saying at work,” says Roz Usheroff.

Usheroff, in a book with Beth Banks Cohn called “Taking the Leap,” ($14.99), says that a woman, for example, may become caught in the “superwoman trap” when she doesn’t create clear boundaries and tries to do everything herself. Instead, they say, women should “learn to say no and mean it.”

For a man, a communication problem may be the “Goliath trap,” where the man tries to gain support for his cause by portraying himself as the little guy against a big, bad foe. That’s a mistake, they say.

“You may have competitors, you may have colleagues who have different approaches or opinions that yours, but they are just that, not the ‘enemy.’ Labeling someone the ‘enemy’ dehumanizes them and has no place in business,” the authors say.

Usheroff notes that men and women should get input from others about their communication style to make sure they’re seen as leaders by others. “People may believe the way they are communicating is right, and not realize that there are people who resent their behavior,” Usheroff says.

In the book they give several examples of communication errors, and how women and men can improve. For women, they say:

  • Being seen as the “good girl” can take likeability too far. While it’s OK to be approachable, you can’t make business decisions just so someone won’t be mad at you. Don’t be afraid to ask for a well-deserved promotion “for fear of not being seen as appreciative.”
  • Stop hedging. Strong opinions or feelings are hidden behind words such as “it’s only my opinion” instead of more confident statements such as “I think” or “I believe.”
  • Understand that sometimes no matter what you do, you will be unfairly labeled. As long as you assert yourself fairly and honestly, don’t worry about being called names.
  • Striving for perfectionism will cause indecision. It’s a “downward spiral” that can cause women to ruin their careers. “Rather than seeking perfection, seek excellence in the time frame you have available,” they say. “And whatever you do, don’t impose your need to be perfect on your employees.”

For men, the authors say:

  • Don’t constantly hide your feelings. Most people don’t want leaders who are emotionless because it makes them uncomfortable.
  • Stop trying to “one up” colleagues. While being competitive is good in business, such a win-at-all-costs nature is destructive to teams, and will negatively impact business results.
  • Learn to delegate. By believing only he can do a job right, a man who has this attitude undermines his leadership because “you can’t be a leader without followers,” they say. While women also display such tendencies, “it has been our experience that men fall overwhelmingly into this category.”
  • You don’t always have to be right. In this case, someone always has to be a “loser” so the man can be a “winner.” Whether it’s vying for a job “and doing everything in his power to make the other internal candidate look bad” or lobbying people to support his business direction because it’s the “right” way, such communication is destructive.
What lessons have you learned about communicating better?


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