The idea that men and women speak a different language is well-worn in regards to personal relationships, but John Gray, author of the famous relationship guide Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus says the same communication difficulties we struggle with in our personal lives also play out in the office. He, along with gender intelligence specialist Barbara Annis, conducted over 100,000 interviews with male and female executives and coauthored Work With Me to highlight the blind spots in workplace communication that create conflict between the sexes.
They argue there are innate differences between how men and women respond to situations in the workplace and understanding what they are and why they exist can not only facilitate better communication but result in a happier and more productive working environment.
Seventy-two percent of men Gray and Annis surveyed said women ask too many questions. Some men felt these questions slowed down progress and delayed decision-making, while others felt questions were a sign that a female boss was being too controlling or critical.
Women admitted to asking questions but felt their questions were their best contribution; needed to stimulate an exchange of ideas, to build consensus, show concern for others and help arrive at the best possible outcome. Understanding the motivation and finding value the questions rather than be annoyed by them can help to facilitate better communication between the genders and create a more balanced workplace.
While over 50% of women surveyed said they didn't feel included in the workplace—whether in business social events, casual meetings or conversations—90% of men surveyed felt women had equal opportunities and didn't feel they excluded women.
So, who is correct? Both, it turns out.
Gray offers an example of a meeting in which men are constantly interrupting each other and throwing their ideas on the table while the women in the room are silent. "The men will just ignore her [because] they assume that she has nothing to say," says Gray. The woman at the table then feels that the men in the room don't care what she has to say. What men don't realize, says Gray, is that women like to be invited into the conversation.
"When women get together, if someone is not talking [women will tend to say] let me see what she's thinking," says Gray. These opposite reactions, he says, are a result of our biochemical differences. "One of the symptoms of high testosterone is once it gets revved up there's a faster reaction time so men are jumping in there, reacting very quickly," he says.
Women, he says, have higher levels of oxytocin (or what Gray dubs the "we" hormone") and like to be inclusive. Men who ask, "What do you think, Sally?" can help women feel included in the discussion, while Gray says women can take the initiative themselves and lean in Sheryl Sandberg style.
The way men and women feel and show appreciation in the workplace also differs. While men want their individual results to be acknowledged—"John did a great job on that report"—women tend to share the praise and like to be acknowledged as part of a team. When a woman is credited for a task—"Great job on landing that key client, Sarah"—she will most often share the spotlight—"I couldn't have done it without Kate's help."
Gray argues we owe this difference to our two opposite hormones again: oxytocin and testosterone. Women have higher levels of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes a feeling of connectedness—as in "we did this together," "I have a team that supports me." Men, on the other hand, experience a tremendous release of testosterone when they take credit for something, so naturally want to be the stars of the show.
The ways in which men and women solve problems is also linked to these favorite hormones: oxytocin and testosterone. "The stress reaction when a man is challenged by a problem [is] to withdraw. This is a man's reaction to rising testosterone levels to meet a challenge," says Gray.
Women, on the other hand, seek support to solve a problem to engage their "we" hormone (oxytocin), which explains why women can misinterpret men's shutting out as appearing not to care, or brushing off the problem.
Facilitating better connection between the sexes doesn’t mean that men need to completely change their behaviors or that women need to change, but in order to improve communication and have a more harmonious work environment, we each have to work harder to understand and respect our differences.
"The real issue [in workplace conflict] is lack of gender intelligence. We need to appreciate and respect the differences between men and women; to anticipate them and respond appropriately to them," says Gray.