Men, women and office games

Her biggest mistake is giving him unsolicited advice; his, reacting to her as if she were his mother. He likes his competence to be appreciated; she likes her feelings to be taken into account. He likes solving his own problems; she tends to run her life by committee, consulting everyone around her before making a decision. Sounds like a marriage, doesn’t it?

In fact, it’s the gender dynamics of the average office, according to Sydney-based author Candy Tymson, who believes that differences in the way men and women operate can play merry hell with communication between the sexes, even when they are at work.
Tymson, a business speaker and corporate trainer with 25 years’ experience working with large corporations, has written a book charting the differences between men’s and women’s approaches to the business world and the frustration and confusion that can result. Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite Sex, is a snappy, reader-friendly summary of the latest research findings on the communications gender gap, together with tactful suggestions on how to bridge it.

Tymson called the book Gender Games because she believes that each sex’s different operating style can be traced as far back as the school playground.

Men Hate Women Who:

Are too emotional

Are not focused enough

Go into too much unnecessary detail

Take themselves too seriously

Women Hate Men Who:

Do not take them seriously

Interrupt or speak for them

Call them names such as “sweetheart” or “honey”

Just don’t understand how they like to work

Young boys play competitive games such as football and cricket, in which there is a leader, each player has a particular role and the aim is to win. Girls play cooperative, inclusive games such as hopscotch and skippy, in which everyone gets a turn and the aim is to keep everybody happy.

Tymson says each sex automatically applies this childhood orientation to life in the business world. Of course, there are no absolutes and stereotypic behaviors are breaking down as the sexes work together. But, she says, it is still true that male managers tend to be task-focused, directive and solitary decision-makers, while female managers are more collaborative and consultative, as well as better equipped for taking on several tasks simultaneously.

“To men, playing the game and playing it well is what matters. For most women, being liked and being part of the game is what matters, not the game itself,” she says.

“Even the word ‘game’ means quite different things to a man and a woman. To most women, the word ‘opponent’ is essentially equivalent to the word ‘enemy’. To most men, it just means a competitor. To women, ‘cooperation’ means that everyone gets involved and pitches in. To men, ‘cooperation’ means doing your job and letting everyone else do theirs.”

So what does all this mean for life in the land of power suits? Given that men run most of the public sphere, interpreting workplace exchanges accurately is a survival skill that can be particularly tricky for women. Take the apparently innocuous issue of asking questions.

The book tells of an American linguist, Deborah Tannen, observing a group of medical interns as they did hospital rounds with a senior doctor. The female students frequently asked questions; the males did not. She asked the men later whether this was because they already knew the answers.

Tymson writes: “Without exception, all the men said that it is common for interns and residents to conceal their ignorance by not asking questions, since those who (ask) are judged less capable. Instead, they would find out the information themselves, either by researching it after the event or asking one-on-one, but never in front of their peers.”

At the end of the year, the senior doctor marked down most of the women for their ward performance. He believed their questioning indicated they did not understand as much as their male counterparts.

Tymson says that, for a man, achieving goals and solving problems independently is extremely important: “To him, autonomy is a symbol of efficiency, power and competence; a man’s sense of self is defined through his ability to achieve results.” Consequently, “One of the biggest mistakes a woman can make is to offer a man unsolicited advice.”
Because proving their competence is not as important to most women, they generally do not find offers of help offensive and do not perceive needing help as a sign of weakness, she says. Their approach is more likely to be, “Why waste time when you can simply ask someone?”

There are other ways in which a typical male perspective can judge a woman’s different operating style as ineffective or inappropriate. Says Tymson: “I had a managing director talk to me the other day, very concerned about a senior woman who was his resources manager. He had given her a problem and he just wanted her to solve it. She kept coming back to check in with him.

“A woman will go around and discuss a problem with a number of people, get feedback and check whether people will support a particular solution or not. Her focus is to recommend something that most people will go along with. A typical male manager might discuss it discreeely with one or two people but will feel he must make the decision. It leaves men thinking that women can’t make a decision on their own. But women are focused on building rapport, not just for their own emotional needs, but to achieve the goal.”

While men can find women’s routes to a goal unnecessarily verbose and circuitous, women can find the male style abrupt to the point of rudeness. Tymson says men tend to use language to preserve their independence and maintain their position in a group; women, to create connection and intimacy. Women usually give feedback and encouragement to a speaker by smiling, nodding and asking questions. (This can backfire for them when listening to men, who can slide into lecturing mode because they interpret nodding as agreement, rather than mere attentiveness.)
Increasingly, the best managers have developed a blend of both male and female approaches, Tymson says. She surveyed 336 managing directors, managers and company staff to try to determine where they scored in terms of four “feminine” goals (equality, agreement, feeling, interdependence) and four “masculine” goals (status, competition, action and objects, autonomy).

Most used both “the ‘masculine’ behaviors of being decisive, focused and logical, together with the ‘feminine’ behaviors of building relationships, seeking agreement and relying more on their intuition”.

One successful man was dismayed that he scored high on “feminine” values. Then he realised that this was because he ran a company in which the staff were female and the product – romance novels – was designed for the women’s market. In his previous job with a construction company, he had operated quite differently.

Women, however, must be more cautious about adopting the “male” style. In the book, Tymson writes that, “Generally, (businesswomen) are still expected to hedge their beliefs as opinions, seek advice from others, be ‘polite’ in their requests . . . If a woman does talk in this way, she is seen as lacking authority . . . (But) if she uses the male model and talks with certainty, makes bold statements of fact rather than hedged statements of opinion (and) interrupts others . . . she is disliked.”

Tymson says older men, brought up with the belief that women should be protected, particularly dislike coming up against young women who are tougher than they are. “They just let her go until she makes a mistake and then they sabotage her,” she says. “They don’t let her know about important meetings; urgent material doesn’t make its way to her. Don’t try to be one of the boys; they don’t like it.”

If being tough earns dislike, and being nice earns contempt, how should corporate women play the game? Tymson acknowledges that this is a vexed question. She suggests that a woman should adapt her style to the individual she is dealing with, but also refuse to be intimidated by men.

And she offers a piece of advice that might well have come from grandma: “A man needs to feel acknowledged and respected. You get the best response appealing to his abilities and expertise; once that has been established, he will accept your suggestions.”

* Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite Sex, by Candy Tymson, published by Tymson Communications, $19.95.

Quick thinking can win Tymson’s words

How’s this for an embarrassing moment? The female managing director of a large advertising agency is running late for a meeting to pitch her firm to a prospective new client. She rushes in to the boardroom, where 20 men are waiting, and dumps her briefcase on the table, upside-down.

Eager to start her presentation, she reaches for her case to extract some relevant audio-visuals. The case opens and a host of personal items spill out, including a tampon, which rolls slowly down the centre of the table, drops to the floor and lands at the feet of the chairman.

Not missing a beat, the female MD strides confidently to the end of the table and picks up the tampon. She holds it up in view of the chairman, looks him in the eye and says with a laugh: “I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” before putting it back in her case and continuing with the presentation.

She won the account.

First published in The Age.