Business Psychology

Article No. 344
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Following Gender Rules for Talking, or Not

New research reveals communication rules and their effect.

Whenever people come together at work, they talk, and often their conversations involve important needs of the business. For example, understanding a problem that needs to be solved, making plans for the future, or giving instructions and answering questions. Work-place conversations occur in formal meetings and informal settings. They occur among employees, they often include managers, and even if they don't involve business issues, work-place conversations establish communication patterns that carry over into business affairs.

Communication patterns at work can be very beneficial to a business or very destructive. Consider your business and the conversations that occur. Who talks? How much do they talk? Who initiates communication? Is the focus of conversation positive, trying to solve problems, or negative, finding fault and assigning blame? Do your brightest and best people talk the most?

Work-place conversations and the communication patterns that get established make your business a good place to work where customer needs and problems are solved, and the future of your business looks bright, or they make your business a miserable place to work where hostility and defensiveness take the place of progress. Victoria Brescoll from Yale University is interested in communication patterns at work, and she recently completed a series of studies on the subject. She gained some insights that will help us.

Would it surprise you to learn that clear rules govern work-place conversations? To the casual observer, ongoing conversations appear spontaneous and haphazard. They're not, and figuring out the rules people follow as they participate in these conversations is not a simple task. Brescoll's recent studies attempted to bring some clarity to the subject. She examined three communication issues: how much people talk, their gender, and their power in the organization, and she made three surprising discoveries.

Brescoll's began her research in an odd place: the U.S. Senate. In the Senate, people have clearly defined power, especially their seniority and committee assignments, and every word they say on the Senate floor is recorded. She was interested in the effect of power on the amount of time senators spent speaking. She found that power increased the amount of time the senators spoke, but that was only true for the men. Increased power did not increase the amount of time women spent speaking.

Next, she experimented with 362 mature employed adults (their average age was in the late 30's). First, she wanted to know if her earlier finding about power and gender was also true in work settings. She found that it was. Women with something to offer are holding back. They are following a rule to "hush up." This was Brescoll's first surprise finding. Now why would they do that? It was to this question that Brescoll turned next.

Brescoll tested several possibilities, and she found that women are afraid of punishment if they speak up. This was her second surprise finding. Brescoll explained women's reasoning this way: Men use talking in a social setting to establish their place in a social power hierarchy. If men want power, the ability to influence the thoughts and actions of others, then they speak up, and they talk more than others. If women speak up, then they're signalling to everyone that they want to join the competition for power. They are challenging the men for a dominant place, and that's not the proper role for a woman. Rules exist for proper conduct of people according to their gender. Women who speak up violate one of these rules.

Finally, Brescoll conducted a third study. She wanted to learn if the women were right. Do they really have something to fear? To Brescoll's surprise, they do. This was her third surprise finding. In Brescoll's experiment, both men and women were quick to mete out punishment to women who spoke too much. Men who spoke the same amount were rewarded. Interestingly, men who spoke little were also punished by both men and women. Men are supposed to participate in the competition for power by speaking up. If they choose not to do so, then they are similarly punished. Gender rules for talking in a social/work setting are alive and actively enforced, and anyone can see them working.

Brescoll's findings are troubling for business owners, and they lead us to consider some searching questions: Whose ideas would you prefer to be considered in work-place conversations in your business? Whose contributions do you value most highly? Are your brightest and best people always the men?

What about you? If you're a woman running the show, do you "hush up" when men speak? Are you afraid of the sanctions you will face if you break these unstated gender rules for talking?

Business owners have the ability to influence communication rules. You are not at the mercy of archaic conventions that govern talking. You can take charge of this. You can ask specific people for their contributions. You can discourage a person from continuing to talk by shifting your gaze to another person. You can reward a woman for speaking by demonstrating your pleasure with what she has said. Watch. Listen. Experiment. You can do better in your business. Your women and your business will benefit if you do.

Reference: Victoria L. Brescoll (2011) Who Takes the Floor and Why: Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56, 622-641.

© Management Resources

See Also:
Punishment for Success
Bargaining With Men
Loafing on the Job

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