Gender Consciousness

By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published August 2007

Hitting the 'nodes' in a new way.

Are women more emotional, men more logical? Are women more focused on relationships, men more focused on tasks? Are men smarter, or are women smarter? These questions are now being addressed by neuroscientists, who are revealing ways to leverage the strengths of men and women at work so that new thinking will emerge.

Using a Gender Lens to See Clearly

The meeting was over, and everyone felt like this was one of the best decisions that they had ever reached. What made this meeting better? First, the men and women in attendance were gender-aware. They’d studied the natural ways that men and women process information, make decisions, discuss and listen, and they applied this knowledge to their conversations. While the challenge being addressed was fraught with conflict, they opened the space for the rich exchange of ideas; and out of this, new perspectives emerged—those that neither the men nor women had ever entertained before.

Neuroscience is opening up a new gender lens that gives leaders a way to dispel old myths, and gain insight into how to draw on best on men and women’s strengths. These studies enable us to examine how men and women think. They even give us startling insights that will change how we innovate, decide and converse at work.

As we combine women’s with men’s way of thinking and conversing, we create an emergent system, with new ways of perceiving and new possibilities. We’ll be hitting nodes in a new way and opening up new pathways.

Let’s look at what we’re learning about gender differences in order to cause “great music to be played.”

Differences that Matter

Listening: Women and men listen differently, in part due to our brain differences. Men and women listen differently based on how their brains respond to problem-solving, decision making, innovation, and relationship building, to name of few factors.

  • How Women Listen: By nature, women are more interested in the journey—the conversation and the process of getting to the destination. They listen by connecting more data points, listening with a larger frame of reference, processing context, connecting data points, and listening for implications. Why? Women’s brains have a larger corpus callosum in the front where the frontal lobes reside. This may enable the greater verbal skills. The corpus callosum connects left and right hemispheres, enabling the two hemispheres to communicate rapidly and efficiently with each other.
  • How men listen: Men are more interested in the destination. They often see the end point more quickly and want to get to the conclusion more quickly. Men listen with a more focused attention to solving a problem, making a decision or taking action quickly. Why? Men have more gray matter tissue in certain regions in the back of the brain where the visual spatial capabilities reside. Men have more compartmentalized listening—using the left-brain— while women have more web-based listening using both their left and right brains. Men listen to make a decision, to get the answer, or to fix a problem, while women listen first to get the broad context and explore the dynamics so they can make the decision with a broader perspective.
  • What matters for women and men: Women have more white matter in their brains, men more gray matter. This structural difference—one focused on more connectivity, the other upon discrete processing nodes—appears to map to some interpersonal styles. There appears to be two different models for brain structure— each model adding important information and skill-sets to innovation, decision-making, and communication style.

Differences that Don’t Matter

In cognitive abilities, the differences between men’s brains and women’s brains is very small. So, both men and women, on average, are equally smart. Men and women’s IQs do not differ much—they just get there in different ways. Men’s brains are 10 percent larger, but the size does not equate to 10 percent greater intelligence. Men’s brains may have more redundancy of structure built in, perhaps to protect the male brain. Women’s brains, having less exposure to traumatic damage, appear to be more efficient; yet these structural differences do not translate into more cognitive abilities—or higher IQ for men.

Strengths Can Become Weakness

Your brain is built to masterfully handle complexity and to adapt to changes. Three things, common to men and women of all ages, make us human and give us our edge.

  • We are masters at pigeon holing. We give labels (words) to things quickly. We define, we make meaning, and we do this rapidly. Since we have to generalize, we can assign incorrect labels. Yet labels are so powerful that they can blind us from seeing anything but the label we have assigned.
    • Gender bender: Blindspots can cause us to stereotype others incorrectly. By stereotyping, we force people to conform to the labels and stop treating them as unique. Labels such as emotional or chatty or buttoned down can be gender biased labels that get in the way of us appreciating and leveraging each other’s real differences.
    • Gender consciousness: To break out of generalizing and labeling, we need to interact with and work with a more diverse group of people. Inclusion and diversity practices breakdown the tendency to stereotype and create a forum for cross-gender collaboration, which builds respect into the culture and honors gender diversity in teams and relationships.
  • We are a massive pattern-recognition mechanism. We classifying people into bins so that we can move through the complexities. We form comparables that give us a sense of safety and confidence. And we create patterns in our minds of how things work—patterns that give us roadmaps for navigating the complex words of decision-making. From this we can move forward with confidence.
    • Gender bender: The risk with pattern- making is that we stop seeing what is taking place around us, and form male-centric or women-centric strategies and action plans that miss picking up the reality of changes. While these are our comfort zone ways of working, we may start to stereotype men and women thinking, “this is who they are all the time.” Old-boy and old-girl networks reinforce this way of thinking.
    • Gender consciousness: To break out of habitual patterns, we need to bring men and women together to draw out the best of each when creating practices—building on the strengths each has to offer. The result will be more innovative and creative— as well as diverse workplace practices.

Becoming Gender Aware

Some of the differences in men and women’s brains are stereotypical and prevent us from performing at our best; others are real, and by understanding them, we can leverage the best we have to bring at the best time in the decision process. Knowing the real differences enables us to create an culture that leverages the strengths of both genders. In this “third eye” perspective, we can apply the science of gender at work, and catch ourselves when we are stereotyping or labeling and interrupt the pattern.

Being aware of possible Gender Benders, and interrupting the patterns, gives men and women a new sense of freedom and creativity to bring their best selves to work.

The highest state of being is to live as Dynamic Adaptable Systems—where we constantly form new connections based on new information. Stereotypical thinking—relying on assumptions—inhibits us from being the best leaders we can be.

When we’re gender aware, we create the best environment for the dynamic emergence of new thinking, sustain a state of dynamic resilience, and constantly update and refresh our brains with new information. In essence, we become incredibly resilient and adaptable. Like a jazz quartet that starts with a few notes and rif, we can honor the differences between the sexes and hit the nodes in a new and better way.

Leveraging assets makes the difference between success and failure. In fact, the ability handle complexity and ambiguity is most clearly correlated to profitability and success. Leveraging the strengths of men and women at work models the best way to leverage gender differences at work.

ACTION: Become dynamically adaptable.

Precision Listening

By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published August 2007

Ask questions to communicate better.

For a manager, listening is the basic tool for collecting information needed for timely and effective decision making. Whether your talents are in sales, systems engineering, administration, a support center or headquarters staff, gathering and effectively assessing relevant information is key to your success.

The listening mind is never blank or impartial. Our listening is influenced by events, relationships, and experiences—all adding to what we hear and changing the meaning. As objective as we would like to be in our listening, we are subject to the effects of our physical and emotional states. Being tired, angry, elated or stressful predisposes us to selectively attend to what we hear.

Recall a recent situation where you were a listener—perhaps a speech delivered by an executive or a discussion with a coworker. Did you listen to facts or to specific words? Did you paraphrase these words in your mind? Did this lead to new impressions? Were you affected by the speaker’s voice, dress, demeanor, mood, or attitude? Were you evaluating the speaker’s effectiveness? Were you judging his or her ideas? Or, were you so preoccupied that you didn’t listen at all?

Since we can’t attend to everything we hear, we listen selectively. But what guides our listening? Why do people who hear the same speech often walk away with different impressions? Obviously, they didn’t “hear” the same thing.

We hear one-sixth as fast as we think, and so the mind has the time to construct questions, inferences, and associations. Do we use this time wisely? Do we recognize that ineffective listening is a management problem?

Listening Behaviors

Consider these four types of listening behavior in business:

1. Noise-in-the-attic listening. We may think that being a good listener is merely sitting silently while others talk. Outwardly, we appear to be listening. Inwardly, however, we are listening to the “noise in the attic.” When we listen with this posture, we are disengaged from the speaker’s ideas and involved in our own mental processes.

Noise-in-the-attic listening tends to develop from childhood experiences. As youngsters, how many of us heard: “Don’t talk while I’m speaking!” “Don’t interrupt me!” “Don’t ask so many questions!” “Why? Because I said so!”

Conditioned by these warnings, many of us turn off our minds and habits of inquiry. Instead of clarifying the speaker’s intent, we are preoccupied with our own internalizations: “Who does she think she is?” “I can do his job better than he can.” Or, we may find ourselves planning a trip, remembering a pleasant experience, or even completing a thought— returning from time to time to listen to what is being said. Sound familiar?

2. Face-value listening. We think we are hearing facts, when the words we are hearing are interpretations. In face-value listening, the listener isn’t mentally “checking back” into the real world to see whether the words explain what they purport to explain. Words are heard more for their literal meanings, not as tools for understanding. This explains why executives, managers, and staff can differ dramatically in their perceptions. Children use face-value listening, since their experiences are so limited. Our experiences should add depth to our listening. Sadly, many of us hear, rather than listen. Good listening requires guided thought.

3. Position listening. Business has its own listening problems. Employees, alert for clues to their performance, are often victims of position listening, a highly partial form of listening. For example: A manager might listen to her president’s annual report to determine whether her division will be growing. What she hears in that talk could easily affect her performance during the year as well as her relationships with coworkers. She will listen to immediate superiors to determine her role. Obviously, position listening can lead to faulty assumptions and destroy the morale of a high-performing team.

4. Precision listening. Precision listening is the art of knowing how to listen and how listening affects performance. Listening is not an end in itself, but part of a chain of processes that end in a decision, strategy, or change in behavior or point of view.

Why we listen determines the type of information we listen for. Salespeople listen for customer concerns. Lawyers listen for the opposing speaker’s faulty logic. Psychiatrists listen for unconscious motivations. These bits of information are important for the listeners to do their jobs successfully.

Training has taught them not to listen at face value, and to use the time lag between their hearing and speaking to evaluate what is said. At the same time, they don’t dismiss their emotional response to the speaker, their “feel” for the situation, or their hunch of what might happen next. A framework telling them how to influence a person also guides these professionals.

In sales, the marketing rep wants to influence a customer from a point of no interest to a commitment to buy. The lawyer tries to influence the jury to his or her point of view. The psychiatrist works to influence the patient toward new insights about personal behavior, motivations or view of the world.

Executive as Precision Listener

Business executives need to focus on interpersonal influence. Who is being influenced and why? What ideas, beliefs, and behaviors need to be influenced for the person to be more effective?

What do I know about this person that will help me better understand her and what is being said? Are her problems or concerns such that we can effect real changes, or are they out of reach in the business context?

The executive examines the way she or he answers the employee. Will the person listen better if the answers are short and sweet or will listening improve if these statements contain more background information?

In practicing precision listening, the executive listens carefully to the employee’s answers—to phrasing, context, and words used to get clues to the real meanings behind the words. To reduce the ambiguity of meaning and intent, the executive will ask questions, rephrase and restate what was heard.

Precision listening helps us peer into the minds of others, enabling us to set more helpful, meaningful, and satisfying objectives for action.

When we adopt the framework of navigational questioning and use precision listening as a tool, we improve our ability to communicate and make more timely and better decisions.

Navigational questions include: What is the situation? How are you approaching it? What outcomes do you want to create? What are you focusing on? What resources do you need? What assumptions do you hold? What does success look like? How will you measure success? What is holding you back? What are your strategies for moving forward? How will the desired outcome impact you and others? How will you prepare everyone for the potential changes? How will you reduce fear? What new ideas and approaches are you considering? How will you introduce them to others? How will you engage people in creating the new outcomes? What would you like to see happen? How important are these changes to you? What would happen if these changes did not take place? What are the implications if they do take place? Who will benefit from the changes? How can you ensure the right people are engaged?

ACTION: Improve your listening behavior.