Diversity in the workplace is an ever-present, prevailing buzzword, and women and men exchanging ideas as equals and sharing power have become mostly standard. However, as we all can attest, the level playing field is not always without its obstacles. Because women and men communicate – and view power – in different ways, misunderstandings can be inevitable.
Over the years, countless experts have explored how women and men communicate differently in the professional arena. For example, bestselling author Dr. Pat Heim, an internationally recognized expert in gender differences in the workplace, says men and women behave according to “two separate cultural rules about what feels comfortable.” Learning the cultural differences that define what is “right” for men and women, Heim says, as well as maintaining a sense of humor, is a smart first step towards more meaningful communication between genders.
While an array of differences has been found as part of this extensive research of the genders, many people don’t look deeper into why there are differences. Instead, they often dwell on stereotypes or hyper-focus on surface-level issues versus digging deeper into why men and women act one way or another at work.
Why We Are Different: A Deeper Dive
As young children, girls and boys are often segregated, restricted to engage exclusively with their gender, learning a specific culture and their own gender’s norms.
Once children mature into young adults, their earlier exposure can result in differences in communication between genders, predisposing men and women to communicate for different reasons.
For instance, men may be more likely to communicate as a way to maintain their independence or status, while women may look at communication as a way to cultivate and foster relationships. Also, for many women, communication is a way to gain a better understanding, find symmetry or strengthen relationships. Men, on the other hand, tend to view communication as a strategy to negotiate for a win, avoid failure, give advice or gain power.
Add the ‘Fear of Speaking Up’ to the Mix
In addition to gender differences at work, it can be daunting to determine when it’s okay to speak up and express our opinions. Some employees are more naturally introverted, while others simply don’t have confidence in their opinions.
However, while it’s natural to have your guard up – or whether you are male or female – it’s still vital to speak up at work. Why? Fear of speaking up can actually cost you your happiness and your job.
According to a recent DecisionWise Benchmark study, not only does not expressing your opinion increase dissatisfaction among employees, but it also can lead to non-productive work behaviors, absenteeism, and reduced performance and turnover.
It’s also important to speak up because, regardless of your gender, we all have experiences and perspectives that can be valuable. At work, we are all part of a greater team and culture; and part of being a responsible team member means that everyone contributes and helps each other. Whether you are male or female, if you keep your thoughts and ideas to yourself due to the fear of speaking up, you can end up frustrated and let the team down.
Find a Healthy Balance – Follow These Tips
Stepping outside of your comfort zone – and in front of the team – is easier said than done. The process of communicating clearly and collaborating seamlessly at work is complicated and adding gender differences into the mix only makes it more complex.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t all better understand how we communicate. Here are a few tips for improving communication at work:
- Stay aware (and remain aware). Realize that women and men have various communication styles. Don’t be offended if a person of the opposite gender responds or acts differently from what you were anticipating. Also, pay closer attention to prevent subconsciously pushing stereotypes and biases that can stifle open communication among men and women.
- Don’t stereotype. Not every person fits into his or her male/female stereotypical roles. Whether it’s the environment you were raised in or genetics at play, numerous factors dictate how people act – and personalities vary widely from the norms.
- Be an information-seeker. Recognize there is strength in communication. Learn about the different communication styles used by each gender and try to better understand the context for both. Work to understand the differences and adapt your communication style accordingly for various team members.
- Aim for a healthy balance. While being aware of gender differences can make for a more informed workplace, it is too rigid to say that women always behave in one way and men another. To achieve a healthy balance, the trick is to urge employees to appreciate that there are many ways to achieve a result or goal, and that “their way” is not always the right way.
Closing the Gender Communication Gap at Work
Healthy communication and collaboration are essential ingredients for success in the working world.
We all realize the value in understanding cultural differences in the work environment. Understanding the impact that gender has on communication styles is yet one more way that organizations and their leaders can gain an elevated understanding of their most valuable asset – their workers.
Closing the gender communication gap – and encouraging male and female workers to speak up – takes significant cultural guidance and change. Training and a concentrated effort of how both genders communicate about themselves and with each other are crucial to seeing this change take place. And it all starts with awareness.
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