If you, like me, have ever sat through a meeting with mainly women you will almost certainly have wondered when they were going to stop talking and get down to action. Whereas men seem to do first, women seem to take time to get into action. Have you ever noticed that?
If not, it’s worth observing your team for a while and you will most likely see what I mean.
A senior manager recently gave me this example: ‘I do see that women tend to think more than men. When a client calls with an issue, the typical response of most men in my team would be: ‘the b*****, what on earth are they doing!’, next they would angrily pick up the phone to sort things with the client, right now. I see that women in my team tend to respond differently. They tend to call a meeting to discuss how to approach the issue’.
So what is the best way of responding? Is it discussing or is it doing?
You may well be thinking now that this blog is just about some sort of cheap way to label men and women, what’ s the point? Is this just to stigmatise men and women? I can assure you that there are some useful lessons in this observed difference between men and women that every good leader needs to know. Lessons that will help you achieve maximum performance in your team.
Base reaction to stimuli: emotion vs. action
However before I can show you what it means for you as a team leader you need to know what’s underlying this behaviour.
Science* shows that the basal (everyday) state of the male brain is dominated by the ‘fight or flight’ centres (ie reptilian/instinctive behaviours). In women it seems that more activity occurs in the brain’s limbic system, which deals with emotions and feelings.
It appears that when things happen, a man’s base reaction is to jump into action, while women are more likely to react emotionally. This base reaction is not about conscious behaviour; but more about impulsive behaviour. Instead of jumping into action, women tend to be keen not to damage the relationship and keep their emotions at bay. They do this by talking.
Now of course, our behaviour is the result of external factors and a complex set of processes in our brain. So, it would be too easy to assume that seeing more activity in one area of the brain leads to certain behaviours. There are no such direct links.
However, when prompted, John Neal, former coach of the UK national women’s rugby team illustrates beautifully what it can look like in a rugby team: ‘When working with a group of men you have to hold them back. You roll a ball into a group of men and they will start kicking it, or throwing it, and you will have to shout ‘put the ball down!’. When you do the same in a group of women, they will carry on listening, wanting to know about the purpose of the exercise first. Although we do have boys like that, it tends to be more often the girls.’
Knowing our brain processes, and how they tend to differ by gender can be helpful for leaders to understand behaviour, and find new ways of improving performance. When applying these insights it’s important to realise we are talking about preferential behaviour. If men tend to have a preference for acting first, it doesn’t mean they will always actually do that, it may well be that they have learned to do something else.
Yes indeed, our preferential behaviour doesn’t determine what we do, we can learn other behaviours. As a team leader it’s your job to speed up and facilitate that learning process to get the best performance from each individual.
What leaders need to do with this difference in base reaction
Once again in sports I found a brilliant example that shows you what to do with this difference in base reaction. However, due to the nature of the example, the coach has asked me to keep it anonymous, but this is what was said:
“Sometimes in sports the opposition is deliberately aggressive, making fouls whenever the referee isn’t looking. In the men’s team this never was an issue, they counteract in the same way. But not so the women. We had to teach them that to win it is needed to instantly retaliate in certain situations. We called it the F*** You attitude. We had to teach the women that – in certain situations – it’s okay to retaliate instantly. We taught them it’s okay to do so, and can be the crux to winning. We talked about it, and whenever it was necessary they knew what was expected.”
So what does this mean for you and your team at work? The same senior manager I mentioned at the beginning of this blog is using his knowledge of the difference like this: “My team performs best if I give individual team members the steer that helps them most. I find that you need to let women know that instant action is sometimes necessary and that you really don’t need to debate absolutely everything. It’s the other way around with men. You need to teach them that it is usually sensible to hold back, think and discuss, before they do. So as a manager I am alert for those individual pitfalls.”
Applying this right away to your leadership style
When you are keen to see how this could work in your team, just follow the next steps:
1. Observe and reflect
- What do individuals in your team do? Who are the ‘immediate action’ people? What do the others do: talk, be emotional, wait, gather information?
- For both types of people, ask yourself: In which situations is their attitude helpful? In which situations is their attitude unhelpful to team results?
2. Prepare for action
- Do you have individuals in your team that need prompting to get into instant action? What can you do to prompt them into instant action? Would you chose a talk-through, a short remark in the moment or a bit of humour?
- Do you have individuals that go into action too quickly? What could you do to help them pause and think, then discuss? What habits could you teach them that will help them pause and think?
3. Practice your new tactics
Now just try it out. Do your team members get that sometimes instant action is required, but in most situations pause and think is better?
Do keep track of what is working, and reinforce it when you catch an individual doing the right thing.
I would love to hear your view. Do you recognise this gender difference in your team? And if so, what is your way to teach women action and teach men to stop and talk?
* J. Cunningham, P. Roberts, 2006. Inside Her Pretty Little Head: A New Theory of Female Motivation and What it Means for Marketing (2006)