Jennifer Wilson
Exploring gender communication differences at work

Smart leaders develop diverse teams with complementary skills and enhance collaboration by recognizing communication differences.

September 4, 2012
by Jennifer Wilson

In my work with leadership teams, I often encounter relationship issues based on a lack of empathy and understanding for fundamental differences between people based on personality, culture, generation, and gender. These factors, and many others, make us each different—and thereby open to interpretation and misunderstanding by others. Several of these differences, like generation and personality, are openly discussed and studied at work. But in many firms, gender differences seem to be noticed but left unexplored. Perhaps we fear accusations of sexism or oversensitivity, but silence on the subject won’t lead us to enhanced understanding or better collaboration.

That’s why in this column, I’ll go out on a limb and share some communication differences I’ve seen when working with men and women in the profession. When considering the gender differences outlined in the table below, it is important to understand that a woman may exhibit some of the typically male communication preferences and a man may incorporate some typically female approaches—this table is not “one-sex-fits-all.” 

Further, when working to understand a specific colleague, consider the many other factors that influence an individual’s communication preferences and refrain from pigeonholing members of either gender based solely on this input.

Instead, I encourage using this information to notice where you may prefer the more “male” or “female” approach and how you may perceive the other approach negatively. Then, read the opposite approach and viewpoint and seek to gain some empathy for that preference and its mindset.

Some gender communication differences include:   

Areas of potential difference

The typically male approach might be to…

The typically female approach might be to…

When sharing their ideas…

Choose a direct approach like, “Let’s do this project.” or “We should make him an offer today.”

May hear the more female approach as lacking confidence or weak.

Add qualifiers like, “I think we should proceed with this project, don’t you?”  or “You may think this is too soon, but I think we should make him an offer today.”

May hear the more male approach as dominating and not collaborative.

When there’s a problem facing your firm...

Want to get right into action trying to solve the problem. 

May interpret the more female approach as not showing the right level of urgency or too much talk, not enough action.

Want to first understand more about the problem, why it happened, who was involved, what can be learned and then how to move forward. 

May see the male approach as “knee jerk” or rash.

When making a significant decision…

Ask for input from a few, but will be more directive in their decision-making. 

May see the female approach to collaboration as indecisive or unable to pull the trigger on their own.

Collaborate with others, perhaps brainstorming with fellow team members before making a decision. 

Could see the male approach as not inclusive or “forcing” a decision upon others.

When they say “I’m sorry”…

Use this phrase only when they feel in the wrong or in error.

May see the female use of this phrase as an admission or weakness.

Use this phrase for a variety of reasons including as an introduction to excuse a perceived interruption, to share disagreement, “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree,” or to express sympathy, “I’m sorry to hear you had a flat tire.”

May see the male approach to using this phrase sparingly as insecure or not mannerly.

When they have a disagreement or negative interaction…

Experience the upset and then quickly move on without revisiting the issue. Many men can often go out for drinks or golf with the person they had an upsetting interaction with the same day.

May perceive the female tendency to take more conversation to forgive as petty or overblowing a matter.

Experience the upset and then remain hurt or upset for a period of time thereafter. More likely to need to discuss the issue and get some verbal resolution to move on.

May view the male approach of moving on without conversation as callous or avoidant.

When someone cries at work…

Become very uncomfortable and choose to terminate the conversation.

May perceive crying as a weakness and any “tolerance” of it as unprofessional.

Allow the person to cry it out, express sympathy or empathy, or even cry with the individual if it relates to a personal matter.

May perceive the typically male reaction to avoid someone crying as intolerant and lacking empathy.

The typically male “get down to business” communications approach, when paired with the more collaborative, compassionate, typically female style, can make the best possible combination—provided team members appreciate their differences. Are you taking full advantage of the differences between your preferences and those of your fellow team members? 

Smart leaders develop diverse teams with complementary skills

By committing to develop a firm culture that recognizes, embraces, and leverages individual differences, you will experience greater productivity, increased morale, higher recruiting and retention rates, and improved financial performance.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success.