Mars and Venus in the Workplace

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February 2003

Mars and Venus in the Workplace

CIDMIconNewsletter Bill Hackos, Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

Most of us in the information-development discipline are used to working with colleagues of diverse backgrounds. Although more women than men work in information development, we still have a significant mix of gender. We are far removed from the days when men found it awkward to work with women on an equal level or to have woman supervisors. But we all sense that women and men, on average, have certain personality differences related to their gender.

John Gray, author of the Mars and Venus books, starting with Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (HarperCollins 1993), has just come out with his business-oriented book, Mars and Venus in the Workplace (HarperCollins 2002). With his background as a family therapist, he has extended some of the ideas that he developed about communication between men and women to consider relationships in the workplace. His book is written for both men and women. Gray makes no value judgments but provides strategies to help men and women improve their communication at work.

Anyone who has read Gray’s earlier books will notice a consistent theme. Gray asserts that men and women communicate for different reasons. Men are most interested in making a point, while women talk to make a point and to provide or receive emotional support or to relieve tension. Men plan ahead what they will say before talking, but women compose their ideas while they are talking. If men and women are aware of the other gender’s traits, they can become better communicators with the opposite sex.

Gray carries this theme across the entire book. Women like to solve problems by sharing and developing relationships, while men tend to prefer to solve problems by themselves. A man tends to respond to a woman’s call for emotional support by providing solutions. By contrast, women tend to make unsolicited suggestions for improvement to men. Women are more likely than men to express personal feelings in the workplace. Men tend to keep their feelings impersonal. Men tend to interrupt women when they are talking, giving women the impression that they are not listening.

In the workplace, men tend to follow a set of unwritten rules to get along with others, but women follow a set of manners and customs to try to create harmony, cooperation, and loyalty in the workplace. Men are more assertive and competitive in the workplace to get what they feel they deserve. They continue to persist even after an initial rejection. Women assume they will be recognized and rewarded without being assertive if they do good work.

When men are stressed, they have a tendency to blame others, while women are more likely to blame themselves. Women are more likely than men to use the workplace as a source of personal support. Men tend to keep their stress to themselves and are more likely to look outside the workplace for support. Men in the workplace strive to stand out and take credit for their accomplishments, while women tend to minimize their accomplishments and give credit to others. Gray points out that men may interpret this literally and not give women the credit they deserve.

Gray spends some time discussing relationships in the workplace and the need for women to clearly state boundaries and for men to respect those boundaries.

Gray doesn’t offer much in the way of theory or justification for his ideas but rather gives numerous examples for both men and women about how to improve communication. He assumes that we all have an intuitive feeling about gender differences in communication. He states these differences explicitly and provides hints for both men and women. For example, he gives six tips for women on how to give unsolicited advice to men.

Three of the tips are

  • When making a request use “would you” instead of “could you.”
  • State the simple facts and use the least amount of words. For example, “The paint is still wet.” He doesn’t need someone to tell him to keep his hands off the wall.
  • Don’t presume that he needs help. Instead of saying, “The paper is in the bottom drawer,” you could say, “In case you didn’t know, the paper is in the bottom drawer.”

Gray offers ten tips for men when listening to women. Three of the tips are

  • When you listen to a woman and do not rush to the point, she will feel you care and will give you her trust. This increases her willingness to do business with you or work harmoniously.
  • When you ask questions of a woman to gather more information, she will feel more engaged or drawn out and as a result more motivated to do business with you.
  • By not interrupting a woman’s discussion with solutions, you will acknowledge the validity of her problems so that she can trust the validity of your solutions.

Another hint for men listening to women is

A man can assure a woman that he is listening by making little sounds like “umhumm,” “oh,” or “humph.”

These examples describe the flavor of the entire book. One would be a very incompetent manager if all he or she knew about his or her subordinates were gender. As managers, we should know how to handle each member of our staff to maximize his or her output. We know that each of the women and men we manage has a different mix of Mars and Venus and other traits that make them individuals. We need to communicate with them as individuals, not as generic genders.

An area not addressed in the book is cultural differences. Many of us in large corporations spend a considerable amount of time communicating with others from different countries, as well as local staff who have recently arrived from another country. I have found that cultural differences may be more of an impediment to communication than American gender differences. (The gender differences described by Gray are American. In other cultures, the gender differences may be very different.)

Gray seems to want men to act more like women and women more like men. Although there is no doubt that men and women have, on average, different communication traits, men expect women to act like women and women expect men to act like men; we’re more comfortable and we communicate better when we do. However, men and women should still respect each other. Respect is the key to good communication.

Gray fails to consider areas in which his ideas might be more valuable, such as in the hiring and interviewing process when we don’t know very much about our interviewer or interviewee. Another situation is in the area of sales. When we meet on a sales call or other visit with a customer, we have little or no information about personality. In this situation, some of the ideas about gender differences may be valuable. These areas are not addressed in his book.

The style of this book has a serious flaw that makes it hard to read. On nearly every page, Gray has a callout in bold type that is about a sentence or two long and has identical text to what is on the same page. While I appreciate callouts in magazines, so I can decide if I want to read an article, I find Gray’s callouts to be extremely distracting. It’s like reading a book that someone has marked with a highlighter pen. I want to read the book from beginning to end without the glare of bold text constantly reminding me what is important.

The book ends with lists of 101 ways for men to score points with women and 101 ways for women to score points with men. I’ll end this review with a random sampling from the lists.

Ways to score points with women:

  • Give a personal greeting and use her name when arriving at the office instead of asking a business question.
  • Include her name in group discussion conversations. Draw her out by asking her what she thinks or would like to suggest.
  • Ask a woman what she still has to do. Women often feel relief just telling someone what they have to do. It helps them to organize their thoughts and it minimizes stress. He should refrain from telling her what she should do. If there is something that he could easily do to help, he should say so, but only after she is done talking.
  • Introduce her by name and title. In glowing terms, reveal her particular participation or contribution to the company or project.
  • If you have a wife and family, make sure you have pictures of them on your desk or on the wall. On the road, have them in your wallet so that you can share them. When a man appreciates his wife, other women also feel supported.

Ways to score points with men:

  • Get to the point when making a suggestion. Avoid talking too much about problems. Remember, men hear sharing as complaining.
  • In a group meeting, graciously interrupt. Don’t say, “Can I say something?” Instead, go with the flow and say something like, “That’s true, I think…”
  • Give a personal greeting and use his name when arriving in the workplace. Then ask a friendly business question.
  • Practice saying what you do so that in one minute you can clearly explain what you do in a way that includes your expertise and talents. By introducing yourself and letting others know your expertise, you immediately get a point.
  • Take credit for your achievements by displaying awards, certificates, and degrees on the walls of your office. Display pictures of you with successful people or involved with different work projects. If he shows interest, describe your success with a tone of confidence. CIDMIconNewsletter