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How to get what you want in the workplace

Book cover

by John Gray, Vermilion, 2003.


The author uses his successful format of “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” to illustrate impact of gender differences at work. The analogy explains why work relationships between men and women have problems, when even the same words have different meanings for them. Men and women are offered 101 points each to help them work successfully with the opposite sex.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in September 2003)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

This book has a similar title to one of the books reviewed last month which looked at communication in the workplace. This one is also concerned with communication but focuses on a particular aspect - the impact of gender differences and how to take account of them. John Gray is the psychologist author of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. His best-selling book sought to explain the fundamental differences between the sexes which lead to mutual misunderstanding and provided strategies for improving romantic and personal relationships. In this new book, he turns his healing advice towards work and success in the workplace - from how to create and maintain positive relationships between men and women at work, to how to maximise your potential, and realise your creativity.

Gray adapts the basic ideas of Men are from Mars to the workplace. Just as our differences show up in personal relationships in a variety of ways, he says, they also show up in business relationships. Although gender differences may not be as obvious in the workplace, they exist and are often misunderstood. In an environment where people closely guard their personal feelings, the ability to anticipate and understand what others may be feeling, thinking, wanting and needing gives both men and women a great advantage. Gray maintains his ideas apply to everybody from the CEO to managers, secretaries, workers, consultants, etc. and to every function and department in the workplace.

Gray argues that in the workplace we are often so different that it is ‘as if we are from different planets’. With a greater understanding of these differences, we can avoid collisions, and instead work together in greater harmony, cooperation and collaboration. Teamwork will be enhanced with a broader awareness of our potential strengths and differences. By learning to respect the unspoken rules of both men and women, you can achieve success by developing the ability to switch back and forth according to what is most appropriate. With such insights you have the choice to make a few adjustments in thinking and behaviour to be more respectful of each other and obtain the support you are looking for. Without such insight, we unknowingly block cooperation and cannot adjust our behaviour and thereby change our results. It is not about changing who we are as every person has a natural blend of masculine and feminine characteristics.

Gray’s basic notion is to imagine that a long time ago, men from Mars and women from Venus fell in love and decided to live together on Earth. Men nurtured the family by working outside the home and women nurtured the family by working in the home. Venusians tended to be more relationship-oriented and Martians tended to be more work-oriented. Eventually, the Venusians tired of just taking care of the family and wanted to become more autonomous and independent and work in the outside world and earn money like men. At the same time, some men were realising that there was more to life than just work and were becoming more relationship-oriented and concerned with quality home life. These changes triggered enormous confusion, conflict and frustration in the workplace. Martians and Venusians forgot they were supposed to be different and that the differences were good. Men did not respect women unless they acted like men and suppressed their female nature. Those men who were becoming more relationship-oriented were discriminated against by their male colleagues who were still more work-oriented. Fortunately, some men and women remembered that men are from Mars and women are from Venus and were able to respect the differences. They thrived in the workplace together and passed their insights on to others.

Speaking different languages

Martian and Venusian languages use the same words but the meanings are different. On Mars they use communications primarily to solve problems and get a task done, while on Venus they also use it minimise stress and feel better, create emotional bonds to strengthen relationships, and stimulate creativity and new ideas. On Mars they use language to convey content; men deploy the fewest number of words necessary to make a point. On Venus words are used to express feeling as well as content. Caring, understanding and respect automatically earn trust. By talking about what she has to do, a woman can relieve tension and job pressures, but a man may interpret this as the woman trying to get out of doing more. Men know what they are going to say before they talk, but a woman may just begin talking and gradually discover what she wants to say. Because they use communication for a wider range of purposes, women need to prepare men for the kind of communication they are going to use and make sure their reason for talking is appropriate in the situation.

Sharing is from Venus, grumbling is from Mars

Under stress, men tend to focus more. Women under stress tend to expand more and may need to share their feelings if they feel overwhelmed. Men cope with stress by grumbling and women cope with stress by sharing. Without understanding this difference, ‘sharing’ on Venus sounds like ‘complaining’ on Mars. For Martians, if there is nothing you can do about a problem, then there is no reason to be upset about it or talk about it. Men can’t tell the difference between complaining and sharing because on Mars they simply do not share feelings. Men should therefore learn to be more patient in listening to women speak. Women should recognise that men are not adept at these ways of communicating. Taking some time to write in a journal can be just as effective as talking to a friend for minimising stress. When a woman does feel a need to complain, she should try to do it in a manner that will be respected by men. She should process her emotions somewhere else first and then express her complaint in a more relaxed and objective manner. Women should avoid rhetorical questions and men should avoid cross-examination, both of which lead to further misunderstanding.

Mr. Fix-it and the office improvement committee

Women’s most frequent complaint about men in the workplace is that they don’t listen, says Gray. Men generate resistance by not listening in a manner that makes women feel heard. Our biggest mistakes are that men interrupt women with solutions and women make unsolicited suggestions - which irritates men as it seems to presume that they don’t know what to do or can’t do it on their own. On Venus, says Gray, everyone studies psychology and has a degree in counselling!

To Venusians, a sign of caring is to offer help to someone else without being asked. A woman’s sense of self in the workplace is defined mainly by the quality of her work relationships. On Venus, morale in the workplace is more about quality of communication and less about the bottom line. By understanding women better, men can realise when to give solutions and when to hold back. As women learn how to express their support and assistance, men will be much more agreeable and friendly. Gray provides tips for giving unsolicited advice - for example, use direct requests rather than suggestions; state the simple facts and use the fewest words possible; don’t presume to know something a man doesn’t. He also offers some ‘comeback’ statements for men that can diffuse their frustration and indicate that they are trying to communicate in a way that does not blame women for that frustration, eg ‘Thank you for sharing’; ‘I’ll do it right away’; or ‘I knew that, thanks for helping.’

Men go to their caves and women talk

One of the biggest differences between men and women is how they solve problems. When faced with a problem, a man’s first reaction is to ‘go to his cave’ and solve it on his own. A woman’s reaction is to reach out and include others through talking about it. Men therefore appear to be more assertive and women more collaborative. Action is more relaxing for men, while talking is more relaxing for women. Women react to the cave by feeling excluded, uncared for or intimidated. A woman may sometimes misinterpret a man’s need for space as a need for assistance and reassurance. When a man is in his cave, she might begin a conversation by letting him know up front how much time she requires to talk to him. A woman does not need to sacrifice her need to collaborate when she understands a man’s need for cave time. And he doesn’t have to forego his need to solve problems independently when he realises that she just often seeks to be heard. If men and women use these insights, teamwork will improve.

Feelings in the workplace

Men and women express their feelings at work very differently. On Mars, the sharing of positive feelings builds trust and respect. On Venus, the sharing of both positive and negative feelings builds relationships. Men express negative feelings in an impersonal manner. For women, any feeling, negative or positive, is an opportunity to connect with another. An angry woman, however, is often seen in a negative light at work, while an angry man may be respected more. Women should learn to contain and control their negative emotions and process them at a later time. This is not to deny a woman’s essential self - successful people have learned how to express different parts of themselves authentically at different times, says Gray.

Rules are from Mars, manners are from Venus

Men follow an unspoken set of rules to minimise giving offence in the competitive and impersonal work environment. This affirms that his decisions are not personal but are based on what is required to achieve the bottom line. Women follow a set of rules that are nurturing and relationship-oriented. This can be particularly valuable in customer relationships and in closing deals. In today’s communication-rich environment where employees and consumers have more choice, men’s impersonal approach is increasingly less valid. Unless men break the old rules, they will find themselves left behind by their competition. A synthesis of Martian and Venusian values is the secret of creativity and progress. When you are working with women, Gray recommends, brush up on your Venusian manners. When working with men, remind yourself of how you will be evaluated.

Setting boundaries

In the workplace, setting boundaries is an essential requirement for earning respect. Others cannot respect your boundaries unless you make them known. To experience greater trust and respect in the workplace, men and women must develop greater sensitivity to what is being said. To successfully respect a woman, a man needs to recognise clearly when a woman sets a boundary. Women must learn to recognise when they may be easily overlooked and learn ways to assert themselves so that a man will clearly get their message. Boundaries on Mars are primarily competitive while on Venus they are less important because people are interested in cooperating. This means that women may be hesitant or subtle in communicating boundaries to men. Men need to be more aware of women’s subtle messages; women need to learn to appear more decisive.

Emotional support

Both men and women today require a greater degree of emotional support than ever before to minimise stress. They should both recognise that the workplace is not responsible for personal fulfilment. That is up to you, says Gray. If we expect the workplace to be a therapist for our personal issues, we are setting ourselves up for problems. Success is not dependent on receiving emotional support from the workplace but it does depend on our ability to give emotional support to others. The stress busters for women are caring, understanding, respect, inclusion, validation and reassurance. The stress busters for men are trust, acceptance, appreciation, admiration, acknowledgement and encouragement. These are reciprocal - when a man is more caring of a woman, her natural response is to trust him more. As men and women in the workplace support each other emotionally, tension will decrease, cooperation will increase, stress will be minimised and productivity will go up.

Gray concludes his book by listing 101 ways to 'score points' at work with women and 101 ways to score points with men. His use of the Mars and Venus metaphor is simple but effective (and is clearly one of the reasons for the success of his books). Every interaction in the workplace between men and women, he says, requires them to adapt their instinctive approaches. He says that the book will help men learn ways to build trust with women colleagues and customers and will give them an instant edge to get ahead. When women perceive a man as someone to depend on, who cares and understands, and can be trusted, his power to influence will go up dramatically.

Gray points out that a woman’s challenge in the workplace is much greater than a man’s as she has to break into an already existing hierarchy of control and power. He recommends that women should break through the glass ceiling by making men their allies, and not their enemies. Understanding how men think, feel and react differently will give women the insight to make small but significant changes in the way they communicate and thereby gain much more support.

If you haven’t read the original Mars and Venus, an added bonus of reading this new book is that it may help you in your personal relationships as well as in the workplace.

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