Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women and Men - We're (mostly) all humans

There's a song by They Might Be Giants called "Women and Men." Its about people and its silly, but I always think of it when I poke around the topic I'm going to talk about today.

There are huge stacks of books out in the world about the differences between women and men. From suggesting different interplanetary homes to someone just not being into you, I'm not sure if the total number of those books makes anything anymore clear in the difference between women and men.

There are different books with different ideas about how to motivate employees, often divided by gender. There are even articles and blogs and, yes, more books, that suggest there is a real difference in the way the brains of men and women operate, and thus you use different tactics to get the best out of either gender.

I don't believe that treating women and men differently provides a better outcome. I don't deny there are differences--I'd have to be blind and unable to manage touch not to grasp (sorry about that pun) that there are different bits poking out of different places for women and men. But treating them differently as a matter of workplace environment to try and get better outcomes is a giant recipe for disaster.

First of all, HR departments will look at you "in that way." You know, the low, over the glasses look; if they're really upset, you'll get some pursed lips and maybe a "tick ticking" disapproval noise. Practical applications of treating women and men differently just don't seem to exist; this is because it is frequently considered to be gender harassment/sexual harassment, etc. By the nature of treating employees differently, you can open yourself and your group and possibly your company to all kinds of lawsuits.

Most books/articles/blogs that recommend different approaches, however, do not recommend a regimen of systematic and obvious differences; for example, they don't suggest segregating your employees and then appealing to the men with "hands on" approaches and women with "visual" learning styles specifically. That spells discrimination.

Instead, they recommend you alter your interpersonal style based on the gender of your employee. That you give more approval to female employees, and less eye contact to men, for example. While it's true as a woman I crave attention (HELLO BLOG!), and statistically they may have it measured somewhere that the bulk of my gender likes it, there will be at least one woman, somewhere, who doesn't. While you are playing the odds in your favor, you are still gambling with the relationship(s) in question if you tailor your approach based on the gender of the person.

So, I disagree with those people, statistics, charts, and graphs be damned.

What I do recommend for women and men is the same approach, and here is what it is (which is kind of cheating because basically my approach tailors by individual, and not by gender):

1) Talk to the person and find out how he/she likes to receive info: written, verbal, hands on, visual pictures, etc. Always pick two methods (one that works for them and one that works for you), and emphasize those for communication.

2) Talk to the person about non-work related items. Do they flee? Do they stick around and you hear more than you ever needed to know about their 9 year old, three-legged dog? Take what you learn from talking to them outside of the work context and extrapolate that to work. Specifically: some people do not do small talk. Other people require it in order to get to more serious matters. Some people are quiet until they get to know you. Some people are quiet FOREVER...both types will have to play well in a group to be successful. Find out what you are working with in a non-threatening way.

3) Take an interest. As noted earlier, being a manager is not about lying, and while it sometimes has to include sucking up, prolonged sucking up never works out the way you want it to. So. Find something about that person you like, in which you are interested, and make sure that's an available and safe topic to bring up. When they get anxious and need to be talked down, or quiet, and need to speak up, pull this topic out and get them rolling.

4) Group decisions should be based on individual preference. So basically, instead of promoting top down group standards (ie: you laying down the law), encourage the individuals to voice what they want and what they like, and get them together to discuss how they can agree to what they all need. Ownership in the process of determining the rules raises compliance and satisfaction with those rules, even (and especially) when individuals don't always get everything they wanted.

5) Find out what they are good at. Even the worst employee is good at something. An easy way to be the best manager ever is to make it possible for employees to do what they are good at and succeed--it pretty much makes everyone (you, the employee, your boss, the company, etc.) happy when this happens. You likely will have to get creative sometimes--I had one employee with ADHD that the other developers thought they might kill, but we discovered the feature in that diagnosis: ADHD causes you to have a lot of energy and to be able to move between subjects very fluidly...which made this person the most awesome demo person EVER.

There will be times when you can't let everyone do what they are good at, or that you do, but there's still work to do. But making sure that you mix in something that they can feel good about in EVERY assignment means even the stuff they think is kind of lousy is likely to get done, and done well, so they can get on to the next assignment and that helping of praise for doing what they are good at (my apologies to my mother and English teachers everywhere for continuing to end sentences in prepositions).

6) Give it freaking time. People change. People have things on their mind. People have specific hormones in their system or low blood sugar or are coping with the death of a pet. Treat them all like adults and take your time about it. If you are honest in your expression of your intentions to make this work and make everyone successful, it really doesn't matter if they're men and women or apes who know sign language (or some combination of those things).

Individuals make up a group. Give individuals respect and encourage integrity, and it doesn't matter that they belong to groups other than the one you manage; when they are with you, your group will be the top of their list in terms of importance.

Why do so many articles and blogs and lions and tigers and bears (oh my) worry over the differences in gender? Because there are some clear statistical data that back the fact that women tend to be more social and language oriented and men more science and math. They suggest these as a starting place to make people comfortable so that you can build your team from there; my issue, however, is that I hate stereotypes. Encounter one person who doesn't match that stereo type and the whole house of cards can collapse.

This doesn't mean you can't use the data in other ways, however. You can use these studies to make guesses about what people are good at; then you can take those guesses and ask people if they are, in fact, good at those things. It gives a reference point to which they can agree or which they can refute, and provides ample conversation fodder to help you help them find something they like to do/are good at doing.

At the end of the day, though, relationships with an employee-woman or man--is the major factor in how productive and efficient that person is; it just happens to also link to their overall happiness, which is just an awesome bonus.

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