I was talking with one of the great corporate futurists, Mort Darrow, about a conversation he’d had with some corporate bigwigs in the 1970’s. He told them the entry of women into the labor force was going to be the biggest change of the twentieth century. The guys weren’t worried. The only problem they could see was training women to behave properly; that is, like them.
Lots of women, me among them, tried to adopt the male rules and all went out and bought our big, floppy, silk bow ties. Since I gave up those ties, I’ve actively followed the debate over the differences between men and women in general and at work. Like everyone else, I love reading Dave Barry, Deborah Tannen, John Gray, Helen Fisher, and this week’s experts on why we are so inexplicable to each other. It’s just that, as interested as I’ve been in reading about differences, talking about them is kind of embarrassing. It feels vaguely girly and unbusinesslike.
That’s Why Uniforms Have Stripes
I’ve been working with men for a very long time and thought I’d made all the style adaptations I was ever going to need. One of my interviews for my book, It’s Not Business It’s Personal, taught me how wrong I was in that assumption. I was interviewing the chairman of one of the most prestigious banks in San Francisco and it wasn’t going well. He was polite, but I got the sense that talking about relationships, which for many people is a little too touchy-feely, was about to make him break out in hives. He was courteous, but also careful and clearly hoping to wrap things up as quickly as possible. I decided he didn’t like me, and it was all my fault, so I decided to make a graceful exit. As I was packing up, I started to talk about some of the corporate jobs I’d had, columns I was doing, clients we had in common. I saw this click for him, and he really looked at me for the first time. He started to take me seriously. I stayed for almost another hour. By the end, he’d raised the possibility of working together in the future.
What had flipped the switch? I called my friend Tank to help me figure it out. He patiently explained that men like to hear about credentials first. Then they can anticipate performance and know whom they can count on, which for many men has meant the difference between life and death. “Ronna,” Tank said patiently, “that’s why uniforms have stripes. Men like being able to read performance clearly. When you don’t present credentials during an introduction, it makes us anxious.”
Result of Style Differences: Much Gear Grinding
Belatedly, I remembered the conversation I’d had with Barbara Corcoran. She started her New York city real estate business in 1973 with a one-thousand dollar investment, and now her business generates over two billion dollars in sales each year. Barbara talked to me about how men introduce themselves to one another—by immediately announcing their career and position and asking for the same in return (“Hi, Jim Smith, Senior Vice President of Corporate Finance at Microsoft. And you are?”) She said, “I think to myself, how rude! They’re sizing each other up. A woman would never do that. A woman would play coy for two hours on what she did. Or wouldn’t ask. She’d go home knowing everything about the person she’d met except for what they do.” It was comforting to understand that I wasn’t alone in experiencing style difference disturbances. But comfort wasn’t what I needed. I knew in my very bone marrow that if I couldn’t find a way to shift quickly and easily between male and female relationship styles, I’d potentially have the same problem I had learning to drive a stick shift—much gear grinding and some really expensive damage.
Both Sides Now
What’s changed? In the old days, the classic female model—what I’ll call the pink model—was valued, but not explicitly or financially. Because we didn’t understand the value of the relationship in the market, we didn’t knowingly pay for it, or at least not highly.
Now, though, we are beginning to understand that although the classic male relationship rules of business—the blue style—is often powerful and effective, its complement—the pink style—is just as powerful and sometimes more effective. Explicitly understanding, valuing, and mastering these differences is essential to doing well in business today.
Let’s take a look a both sets of rules, for starters.
True Blue Relationship Rules
Feelings are not discussed, especially hurt feelings.
Personal items are not addressed until the end of a conversation, if ever.
Unsolicited feedback, particularly about appearance, is not appreciated.
The most satisfying discussions are about how to best accomplish a task.
First meetings start with a mutual recitation of accomplishments.
Expressions of vulnerability are bad.
Respect always goes to the role, not the individual.
Group communications reflect vertical order: It matters who is “above” and who is “below.”
There is concern about the potential for injured egos or honor and the negative consequences of same.
Team goals automatically trump any individual needs, particularly emotional ones.
Pink Business Relationship Rules
It’s important to know the person you are doing business with as a person.
It’s your problem if you hurt a business associate’s feelings.
The role a person has doesn’t mean they’re right.
Bonding over vulnerability is powerful.
In meetings, it’s good to talk about personal stuff before you get down to business.
The time it takes to reach a consensus pays off.
Announcing accomplishments is self-promotion and mildly distasteful.
Cultivating a relationship with someone simply because they are “above” you in the chain is not highly regarded.
Talk about feelings is good.
The team matters, but it isn’t all that matters.
Pink And Blue—Why Is This Important?
Identify your primary style color by comparing the lists and seeing which one dominates. Don’t assume that just because you are a woman, you are pink, or because you are a man, you are blue. Why is this important? Half of your business world may have a different relationship style than you do. Are you really willing to give up in advance any chance of the value that better connection with the other half could bring? I doubt it. Concentrate on getting cues to the other person’s style as early as possible. Often you can tell from the way they introduce themselves.
Keep Your Color, But Add Dots
Your style is your natural strength and you want to develop it and work it. It’s like your mother tongue: You will always be faster and more comprehensive in it than in any second language particularly one you pick up as an adult. But in the same way that picking up another language dramatically increases your ability to do business in another country, developing flexibility in the other style will do the same. As one executive, Mort Meyerson, told me, “I think males are getting a little more room to be human, and I think females are given a little more room to be competitive.”
Double-Check With Different Color Style
When you are dealing with a style of a different color, check in twice as often to see if you are really communicating. Conversations across styles are more likely to get garbled in transmission. “No” to a pink may sound like “You hate me.” “No” from a pink may sound to a blue like “Maybe later.” The easiest way is to simply restate what you think you’ve heard, as in: “Let me say what I think you just told me. You said that we can get this done, but you have several issues to resolve first, including x, y, and z.”
Team Up With Opposites
In the old days, the classic male model was seen as superior and the complement to that was valued, but often not openly, actively, or highly. Today’s most successful people look for their complement and when they find it, realize the combined value can be exponentially higher.
Leave Conversion Efforts To Missionaries
It is tempting to try to convince other people to do it your way, but my experience, and what I’ve learned from the interviewees, is that the more you try to force a blue to behave like a pink, or vice versa, the more recalcitrant he or she is likely to get.
Vive La Difference
After interviewing top executives across the country, it is now very clear to me that the most macho guys I could find are strong enough to choose to incorporate some pink into their blue styles and the pinkest ladies have adopted some blue.
If you want to play at the top of the game, you’ll put both pink and blue in your life, too.
About the Author
Ronna Lichtenberg is a coach, consultant, lecturer, and author of It’s Not Business It’s Personal, and Work Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the People,and Pitch Like a Girl. She is a contributing editor for "O" (the Oprah magazine), and a frequent contributor to NBC’s Weekend Today and Lifetime Live, and has been featured on Bloomberg, CNBC, Fox, and ABC, as well as in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Learn more about Ronna by visiting Your Winning Pitch.