by Steve Adubato, PhD
Mary Barra has been named the CEO of GM, making her the first female CEO of a major auto company. This is a very big deal in the world of business and leadership.
For Barra to have been selected for this prestigious post speaks volumes about her leadership, communication and management skills. It is still more challenging for women in the world of business to reach the CEO level for reasons having to do with perception and culture, than actual performance.
With Mary Barra breaking this glass ceiling in such a big way, it’s appropriate that we explore some of preconceived generalizations about how men and women lead and communicate in business. After reviewing the business literature, and studies which often show conflicting scientific results, for some the following perceptions remain:
•Men lecture more and listen less than their female counterparts. There is something to be said for men being more direct and less likely to want to have a discussion about certain options when a decision has to be made. However, some of the best listeners I know are men and I have also seen some women who are challenged in this regard. What it really comes down to is that many men in business have been rewarded for being decisive, which some may confuse with lecture giving. However, great leadership also requires a collaborative approach which relies on active and engaged listening, which many women come to more easily.
•Women are less likely to aggressively challenge an employee whose performance is sub-par. In general, I have found in my communication and leadership coaching that both genders struggle with the need to be direct and candid in confronting employee performance issues. However, some women find it even harder, saying; “It’s just not in my nature to be so confrontational.” The challenge is to help women in business understand that in order to lead and manage effectively, sometimes direct communication, with no malice intended, is required—without being nasty or condescending.
•Men tend to communicate in a more aggressive fashion when advocating for themselves when it comes to a promotion, raise or opportunity. This is a skill that some argue is not something that comes naturally to either gender but is more difficult for women of an older generation. Sheryl Sandberg in her book, “Lean In”, argues that women need to be more aggressive in going after what they want professionally, even at the risk of turning some people off. That’s easier said than done for a woman who is a single mom and the sole breadwinner in her family. However, all professionals must ultimately advocate for themselves by communicating with a sense of confidence about their ability and their worth.
•There is a great debate about whether men and women argue differently and what the ultimate goal is when they are in such heated communication situations. Many believe that most women want to find either resolution, or, can accept the fact that sometimes in business, we just disagree about a particular issue and should move on. For some men (I will include myself), we can get caught in the trap of not wanting or being willing to move on until there is some acknowledgement that either we are right, or, that our particular point has been heard. Either way, while there are many exceptions, men and women—particularly in the world of business—wind up in counterproductive communication conflicts based on these gender-related differences that have very little to do with the issue at hand. Gender communication is fascinating stuff indeed.