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From The Leadership News, Spring 1998

Gender and Communication—Finding Common Ground

by CDR Dee Norton, Gender Policy Advisor (G-WTL-1)

Women and men communicate most effectively when they understand the “invisible rules” unique to each gender. Research presented by Dr. Pat Heim in her video, “The Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams,” indicates that each gender is a “culture” in itself, raised with invisible rules of conduct instinctively known to all adult members of that gender. Therefore, men and women behave according to two separate sets of rules about what “right” is. Consequently, behavior that seems natural and appropriate to one gender culture can seem baffling, hurtful or wrong to others. When we work with someone of the opposite gender and he or she does something that seems a bit strange, we often become intolerant and defensive. We do not realize that men and women come from different cultures, even if they are raised in the same homes, educated in the same schools and live in the same country.

The two gender cultures are different in many ways. Understanding the invisible rules unique to each gender can help us become better team members and leaders. It is important to remember that these are generalizations on gender behavior (based on the 80% portion of the bell curve). There are always exceptions to the rule. Examples given are based on what research tells us.

Team Sports: The Hierarchical Culture of Men

In every culture of the world, children are taught to be appropriate adults through the games they play. When boys are growing up, they play baseball, basketball, football, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians and war, all of which are hierarchical team sports. They learn how to compete, be aggressive, play to win, strategize, take risks and mask emotions. Playing their assigned role in the hierarchy, boys learn to obey their coach unquestioningly, become leaders and play with people they do not like. In essence, boys learn how to garner power, manage conflict and win or lose without becoming emotionally involved with their “competitors.”

Playing with Dolls: The “Flat” Culture of Women

More than likely, the girls we grew up with were not playing team sports. Girls play with people they like (usually one-on-one) and learn their cultural lessons from “doll games” in which there are no winners or losers. Girl play reinforces “getting along and being nice,” protecting friendships by negotiating differences, seeking win-win situations and focusing on what is fair for all instead of winners and losers. As a result, girls (unlike boys) have “flat” versus hierarchical relationships. A very important rule in women’s culture is that the power in interpersonal relationships is always kept “dead even.” There is never a “boss doll player.” Girls who try to be the boss quickly learn that this damages friendships. Consequently, when adult women enter a hierarchical workplace, they often attempt to equalize power, negotiate relationships and share power equally.

Gender Differences in the Coast Guard

Does this mean that since the Coast Guard is a hierarchical organization, women cannot succeed? Of course not. Does it mean that the hierarchical leadership style is always the appropriate choice? Again, absolutely not. The command and control leadership style associated with a hierarchy works most effectively in time-bound situations, when there is no alternative or in emergencies. For example, on scene at an urgent search-and-rescue case, the command and control style works best. Time is limited, one person needs to be in control of the situation and everyone needs to fulfill their specific roles. However, take the same SAR case and look at what is going on in the Operations Center. There, the supervisor needs the expertise and ideas of everyone on watch to make the best decision. Each person might provide additional ideas as to how the case could best be handled. In a flat structure then, the leadership style is based on involvement. This style works most effectively when you need creativity and psychological “buy in” and you need “them” to make it work. Clearly, the Coast Guard has many different situations that require different leadership styles. Using the same style in every situation is a quick recipe for ineffectiveness. By understanding the different styles, we can more successfully choose the appropriate one for the situation.

Cultural Misunderstandings

Sometimes the tendency for women to associate with one style and men to associate with the other leads to misunderstandings. For example, on a large cutter, a male chief was supervising a female second class petty officer. He directed her to perform a certain task. After listening to the tasking, the petty officer recommended an alternate method that she had learned at another unit and proved to be very successful. The chief assumed that she was being insubordinate. In his view, being a team player meant knowing your role in the hierarchy and playing your role without question. The chief's anger and unwillingness to listen to her ideas made the petty officer feel unwelcome on the team. For her, being a team player meant helping the group by recommending ideas that might benefit the team. The two different structures (hierarchical versus flat) have different definitions of what makes a good team player. Both members were working within the invisible rules that had been programmed into them from an early age. Neither felt good about the interaction, and their trust in each other was seriously damaged. Had either of them been aware of the differing styles, this unpleasant situation could have been avoided.

Who’s Right?

As you can see, the unique socializing experiences of men and women as they grow up create separate rules and realities for each gender. It is not a matter of who is “right” or “wrong.” One challenge that women face today is that most organizations are run by the rules of team sports. This fact does not absolve women from learning the hierarchical, goal-focused rules of most men, nor does it absolve men from the need to learn about the strengths of the flat, process-oriented focus most women bring to the workplace. The Coast Guard needs both styles to be successful.

It is important to promote the best possible communication between men and women in the workplace. As we move between the male and female cultures, we sometimes have to change how we behave (speak the language of the other gender) to gain the best results from the situation. Clearly, successful organizations of the future are going to have leaders and team members who understand, respect and apply the rules of gender culture appropriately.