Genderflexing for Managers

Like fashion, management styles come and management styles go. No wonder it’s more challenging than ever for managers to deal with increasingly complex gender and diversity issues in the workplace.

In and Out Like Fashion

“Management philosophies change over the years: management by exception, managing by objectives, total quality management and the new trend is the manager as coach,” says Vistage speaker and management expert Judith Tingley, Ph.D.  The newer management philosophies, she explains, recognize that managing people is a complex task requiring the combined skills of psychologist, sociologist, lawyer, and rocket scientist, not to mention the technical skills of the specific industry involved, whether it’s running an airline or manufacturing airbags.

“To add intricacy to complexity, a recent new twist is managing diversity, defined by R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. in his book ‘Beyond Race and Gender’ as a comprehensive managerial process that works for all employees,” says Tingley. “Recognizing and adapting to the uniqueness of the people with whom you work, regardless of gender or personality, age or ethnicity, job function or nationality, is essential to getting along and getting ahead as a manager.” According to Tingley, the use of cross-functional teams as a source of added value in problem solving is a good example of the new emphasis on valuing, using and adapting to individual differences.

The Gender Difference

As a result of changing characteristics of the workforce in the past 10 years, the one demographic that just about everyone still works with is gender difference. Women, who now make up more than 40 percent of middle management ranks, are pressing to make up a higher percentage of the senior management ranks. In many industries that were previously considered male territory, the gender difference is becoming harder to ignore, says Tingley. “The world has changed, stereotypes no longer fit and often no one knows what to do with the new roles and responsibilities, changed expectations, rules of etiquette or questions of ethics.”

Neither gender is quite sure how to deal with the other as managers, superiors or subordinates. Trying to look and act like men often doesn’t work well for women, and for men, treating women as “one of the boys” is no longer an effective approach. “The consequence of the changed gender demographics is often conflict and misunderstanding,” says Tingley. “Men and women are knocking heads and shaking their heads, putting up with each other while putting each other down.”

Leadership Styles

According to Tingley, men and women communicate in different ways, so their styles of management often look and sound different. Many prominent researchers contend that women and men manage very differently as well. Judith Rosener, a professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Ways Women Lead” in a 1990 Harvard Business Review talks about the transformational style of women and the transactional style of men.

“Rosener explains that the female transformational style is process-oriented, involving participation of subordinates, sharing of power and information and empowerment of employees,” says Tingley. “The male transactional style is task-oriented, relying on rewards and punishments for performance. The use of the individual power that comes with the manager’s title and position in the organization is often used as a source of influence in motivating employees.”

Tingley explains that the dilemmas that many men and women in management face are recognizing that there arestereotypes about the “right” kind of management style for their gender, trying to avoid being branded as too soft or too tough to do the job well, while also taking the risk to broaden their management skills in order to be adaptable to different situations and different people. If managers need to be flexible with their subordinates as well as their superiors, it becomes clear that “one size does not fit all,” says Tingley.

“Should a male manager manage a female subordinate in a different way than a male? Are women really more sensitive and so male bosses need to walk on eggshells? Do male egos get in the way of men being able to deal effectively with a female boss? Is the issue one of power or one of gender?” asks Tingley. “Does treating someone as an equal mean treating them the same or treating them differently?”

Tingley highlights George Simons, co-author of “Transcultural Leadership,” who says that if you can learn the skills and attitudes to bridge the gender differences in communication, you will have mastered what it takes to communicate and negotiate with almost anyone, about almost anything. “As a believer in that philosophy of the magnitude of gender disparity,” says Tingley, “I coined a word, genderflex®, to describe the adaptive process that men and women can use to communicate more effectively with each other in the workplace.”

Tingley explains that genderflexing® means to temporarily use some communication behaviors typical of the other gender in order to increase your potential for influence. “Just as you’d learn to speak some Spanish if you were working with a person whose first language was Spanish, you learn to speak some ‘male’ if you’re working with men, or some ‘female’ if you’re working with women,” she says.

Genderflexing® Tips

Tingley offers these genderflexing® ideas for male managers working with female subordinates:

  1. Listen and ask rather than tell. “Generally speaking, when women bring up a problem or concern, they want you to know what’s going on and to understand their thoughts and feelings about the problem. Male managers often assume they should solve the problem, so they quickly jump in with advice,” says Tingley. Unlike many men, women often have no problem asking for advice if they think they need it. They want to be heard and understood, they want their concern to be taken seriously, but they don’t necessarily want advice unless they ask for it.
  2. Treat your female subordinates equally. “This means they have the same opportunities as men to deal with tough tasks, interesting projects, or hard physical work if that’s part of their job description,” says Tingley.
  3. Recognize the need for difference in how you communicate. According to Tingley, you don’t need to be excessively polite, but you do need to avoid or decrease some of the language, the jokes you might use with men, the military or sports analogies. If in doubt, ask. “Even if you’ve been working with a particular woman for a long time, norms have changed, and conversation that was once okay may no longer be appropriate,” she says.
  4. Give more positive feedback about performance than you might think necessary. “Both men and women appreciate frequent, positive comments that fit the situation, but women probably have a higher need for approval than men,” says Tingley. Stick to genuine compliments about performance rather than insincere flattery.

And, if you’re a female manager dealing with male subordinates:

  1. Recognize that some subordinates may not particularly like working for a female boss. Try not to take it personally. You may like the person, may even admire him or her, but it’s harder working for someone who speaks a different language. “There are some ego issues involved based on traditional views of gender and power, so accept his discomfort without being patronizing or challenging, unless the attitude interferes with his performance,” says Tingley.
  2. Be direct, concise and to the point in conversation. If you are concerned about the subordinate’s understanding of all the details, put the excess words in writing. “Recognize that men are less likely than women to say they don’t understand or that they need help,” she says.
  3. If you think he does need help, find a different way to say it. According to Tingley, needing help or support feels like a weakness to many men. Instead, offer suggestions. “If you have strong feelings and thoughts, then tell him clearly and directly what you want. ‘I want you to call Jim, Mary and Joe, and meet with them about the project before moving into phase two.'”
  4. Lighten up a little. Perhaps because women often don’t feel respected in the workplace, they sometimes take themselves very seriously, says Tingley. A good sense of humor generously used is a great way to increase credibility and comfort with co-workers and subordinates. Humor conveys the message that the person using it is confident and in control.

Other adaptive changes both men and women can use include keeping communication collaborative instead of competitive, learning some new vocabulary and the stories and language of the other gender, respecting strengths and learning from each other, and otherwise broadening the repertoire of skills that each gender can use comfortably.

Tingley concludes, “Perhaps the most important behaviors we can all engage in are being more accepting of each other and our differences, recognizing that difference isn’t a deficiency, cutting each other some more slack, and keeping a sense of humor in the workplace. Management can be fun!”

Judith Tingley is president of Performance Improvement Pros, a Phoenix, Arizona firm that specializes in management- and gender-related issues.

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