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How Women Trust Differently to Men in the Workplace

One of the things I get to do in my job is interview employees about what their senior leadership team or organisation needs to do, in order for them to trust the company more.

I've interviewed employees out on oil rigs, Government employees sitting in offices, employees working in remote parts of Australia -  right through to senior executives in Europe.  What I didn't expect to find (because I wasn't looking) is that there are some stark differences between men and women.  The differences mostly tend to centre around communication, but also in what behaviours women need to observe to feel safe.  

I want to share a summary of qualitative results, as they provide some interesting themes for reflection and consideration into your communication or leadership development strategy.  They are:

1. Tell me the why - It's nearly always women that question why a decision has been made or the reasoning behind a decision.  They need the 'why' to be able to emotionally connect to it and evaluate whether to take action or not.  Women tend to want to understand WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) and why they should care about a message. They don't like corporate messages that feel like information or change is being forced upon them.  They want the choice to make their own decision to take action.

Not only that, they like to understand how a leader is thinking, in order to assess whether it makes sense to trust their leadership decisions.  Women want to know the conversations and thinking that break down how a decision was made. You can think of it as being like how contestants on "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" run through how they are assessing which multiple choice answer to select.  Women want that type of thinking from leaders.

When information is missing about a new strategy or direction, women tend to be the only ones that say "I'm nosey.  I know the right people to ask, so I'll keep asking until I can put all the pieces together. But I feel sorry for anyone else in the organisation who doesn't know who to go to."

2. Future steps - We all know the benefits of a compelling vision.  While men tend to be satisfied with a clearly communicated big picture, women question the day to day steps to achieve it.  They want to know the future operating model and the plans behind overhauling the systems to make the vision a reality.  This includes administrative changes, IT systems, HR processes or new hires to support the new direction.  As well as who is accountable for the delivery, priorities and what client success will look like.

3. What's my career progression? - While men also question where their career fits into any new strategy, they tend to be less anxious than women about their future prospects.  Typically, I find that double the amount of women question the career options available when change is undertaken in an organisation. They want to know the capabilities that will be required and what that will look like from a career perspective.  In particular, women are more likely to want clarity on the leadership positions available to them.

4. More frequent, less formal communication - Women also like to receive more information and updates on how work is going across the whole of an organisation.  They don't like just learning about the numbers - and whether targets are being hit.  They want to know why a target was missed or had exceeded expectations.

5.  Women actively look for signs of empathy - Underpinning all the company communication and leadership behaviours women need to see signs that leaders care about employees. 

When an executive doesn’t understand that sometimes goals can’t be met, it shows a lack of empathy.  It puts people offside when they worked their butts off to reach the goal.  Today has become all about caring - creating an environment where peoples' emotions are recognised and accepted as part of work life.  And the outcome is that people feel understood and accepted for who they are.  Which is so important for our brain to relax, trust the situation and commit hard to achieving goals

In my research, I have found a distinct shift since the pandemic, that people are looking for more signs of empathy in the workplace.  With women really driving this emotional requirement.  Empathetic responses vary from public appreciation to employees, initiatives to keep staff safe through the pandemic, apologies when leadership make mistakes and a safe walk to the company car park after hours.  Not only that, many women want to be told of company success around metrics other than profit.  For many women, seeing how the company was making a difference either through human rights initiatives, company donations or consideration to the environment were important.

But there was one theme that has shocked me.  And that is the impact of mostly male leadership teams.  No matter how well a mostly male leadership team functions or models a healthy culture - women hold quiet reservations.  And by that I mean, they ask themselves personally "Is there a career path for me when there are few women here in leadership positions?"  "If I'm sexually assaulted at work, will the boy's club cover it up and make excuses?"  "Am I underpaid because I'm a women?"

What is interesting is that women aren't demanding these changes or explicitly complaining about their circumstances.  They make their requests almost apologising (to me) for even suggesting them.  At the heart of it, they feel that those around them are doing their best and are quick to forgive any transgressions. 

This is interesting because a research study found that women care more about maintaining relationships than men.  Women tend to be both less likely to lose trust and more likely to restore trust in a transgressor than men. So the good news is that it's not too late, if your organisation has some work to do around producing more emotionally resonant communication and improving emotional intelligence among leaders.

What are your thoughts?


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