Monday, February 19, 2007

Women in the Workplace: The Psychology of Business Communication

There has been a drastic shift in the business and gender debate in the past twenty years. Now, psychologists are not asking if women can survive in the business world but instead are researching how women can use their specific communication style as an advantage. Equally important, women are supporting each other in their leadership roles. Linda Hirshman, author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World,” wrote in The Seattle Times about how presidential candidate Hilary Clinton may be counting on women’s votes to become the leader of the country. By allowing women to relate to her, through tactics such as “[announcing] her candidacy for president while sitting on her living-room couch,” Clinton, pictured to the right, may be able to get more female votes. Additionally, another article in The Business Review cites how successful businesswoman Melinda Wickley has recently joined the board of Women Executives Leading Empowering and Developing (WeLead), which is dedicated to “[empowering] women in leadership roles.” However, as Hirshman noted, outside support is not enough for women to become successful businesspeople and leaders. The challenges that they face through stereotypes and miscommunication call for independent and resourceful personalities.

One of the main challenges women face in the business world is in dealing with gender differences. Psychologists have been researching the causes of such dissimilarities for years—are they caused by nature or nurture? A staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joe Garofoli, reports on Louann Brizendine's ideas about the neurological differences between the sexes. This neuropsychiatrist has recently argued in her book The Female Brain that women are simply wired differently, which causes the difference between men and women’s actions in the workplace (the nature theory). She believes that women are, however, equally intelligent as men and simply need alternate accommodations in the business world.

No matter what the cause, nearly all psychologists agree that there are large communication gaps between genders that can cause miscommunication at work. Candy Tymson, a business communication expert with a background in public relations and marketing, separates communication into two broad styles. She categorizes men under the “Information Style,” in which the focus of communication is to “preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status.” In contrast, women more often utilize a “Relationship Style” by using verbal communication to establish bonds and “[negotiate] relationships.” Therefore, women in managerial positions are more likely to seek outside advice to form relationships, and businessmen may see this as weak and as a demotion of the woman’s status. Tymson also notes differences in nonverbal communication. During a presentation, a man will interpret a woman’s close attention and continual nodding as an acceptance of their proposal. Yet this is another way for women to establish bonds and show they are listening. Deborah Tannen echoes many of these ideas in “You Just Don't Understand.” Although not her most recent argument on the topic, the highly respected Tannen nonethtless makes valid points. She agrees that men use communication to establish their status, while women do so to establish relationships. This creates problems when women supervise men, because “for men, doing what [they are] asked to do means they have lost status in that relationship.” Women in leadership positions need to carefully approach male subordinates about completing tasks or accepting blame for mistakes. What women view as politeness or ways to facilitate the ease of conversation, men may mistake for weakness or lower status.

There is an apparent tension between women becoming successful leaders and being unable to communicate successfully with their male counterparts. How can women solve this dilemma, and can they become even better leaders than men? One of the two communication mistakes that women consistently make when dealing with men is to constantly apologize when they have done nothing wrong, as a way to lubricate conversation, and thank others unnecessarily. While other women will understand that “thank you” and “sorry” are often not meant literally, men often perceive both as a way to lower status by accepting help or blame. A specialist on gender communication, Simma Lieberman, makes some other useful suggestions. Businesswomen should work on “[getting] get to bottom line quickly and succinctly,” being patient when men are reluctant to solve problems collectively, and only asking for aid when needed. It is important to note, however, that they should not totally suppress their natural communication tendencies. Instead, women should simply be more aware of the consequences and possible misinterpretations of utilizing certain communication styles when working with men. It ought to be evident that women’s communication skills can be a strong asset in the business world, which has led some to surmise that women make better leaders in many situations. Of course, these broad suppositions about men and women are generalizations, and do not apply to all men or women—furthermore, they simply highlight the general differences between genders.

Carlinn Flora of Psychology Today believes just that—their collaborative communication style allows women to pass on important knowledge to subordinates (pictured to the left is the Forbes list of the top 100 women in 2006, many of which are business leaders). Additionally, her fellow author for Psychology Today, Lisa Mainiero, noticed in her study of successful women that “they tend to be better listeners, to have more insight into people, to come right out and say what they think, and not pull any punches.” These women were able to climb the corporate ladder by behaving bluntly and honestly, working assiduously, thinking creatively, and taking responsibility. This fusion of female communication skills reformatted to fit into the business sphere is what women need to be successful leaders.