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Matthew CB Lyle

Problem: The communication in my organization is atrocious. Meetings get sidetracked by personal stories, innocuous emails are taken the wrong way, and our diverse group of new hires never speak up. What can I do to turn communication into a strength?

Imagine you’re walking down the street, thinking about this problem, when you see a sign reading Free Comedy! As you take your seat, you are greeted by a comic relating the differences between how men and women talk. Following a lukewarm applause, he offers some observations of white versus Black culture, resulting again in sparse chuckles from the crowd. As you wait for the next comic — and your second drink — you have a thought: “Is he right?”

The short answer? Kind of. Scholarship on male and female communication patterns suggests some differences between the two. For example, those who identify as female tend to speak in ways that foster relationships (i.e., rapport talk) while those who identify as male tend to speak in a more direct, aggressive manner (i.e., report talk). Communication may also differ across racial or ethnic lines, as members of majority groups tend to dominate conversation in ways that lessen contributions from minority group members. Maybe these differences account for your communication problem?

The better answer, however, is that these differences are far from all-encompassing. You can likely call to mind a woman that skips pleasantries to focus on business just as you know a man who prefers relationship-building. Similarly, you likely know people from your own ethnic or racial group that prefer to speak up or stay silent. This is because studies often tell us about the average person from a group — something that very few of us are. These findings are further compromised by our recognition that categorizations such as man, woman, Black and white are vast oversimplifications, and allowing them to inform decisions is nothing more than acting based on outdated stereotypes. 

THREE THINGS TO CONSIDER

Scholars have provided three insights that could improve communication. First, we know that group work consists of task activities, or the work done to achieve a goal; and relationship activities, or the process of getting to know those with whom you will achieve it. Many organizations focus on the former, despite our understanding that positive performance can often be traced back to strong team bonds. Organizations should thus want people — male or female — who choose to communicate in ways that focus on relationship-building. In other words, the employee that sidetracks meetings with pleasantries serves a valuable function, and that candidate who came across as “too friendly” might deserve another look. 

Second, perceived communication differences are often just that — perceptions. For example, research participants consistently rate emails from men as more competent and less emotional than those written by females. The kicker? The emails are identical, with the only change being the name at the bottom. These biases are hardwired and difficult, but not impossible, to overcome. Making employees aware of them — and questioning whether an email author’s gender has influenced your response to it before hitting reply — will help reduce the impact of our biases.    

Third, recent scholarship suggests that acknowledging differences enhances social cohesion (i.e., trust and willingness to work together) among disparate ethnic and racial groups. And while telling everyone that they are the same regardless of race or ethnicity may be well-intentioned, these messages in fact lead to feelings of disrespect and a diminished willingness to contribute ideas from minority group members. Conversely, acknowledging and celebrating differences enhances communication across racial and ethnic lines, thus allowing organizations to capitalize on the diverse knowledge that accompanies diverse backgrounds. By recognizing the limitations of one’s own perspective, and making known the importance of listening to people of diverse backgrounds to achieve organizational goals, we can reframe diversity as the valuable resource that it is and spur those new hires to speak up during meetings.   

So, let’s not run our organizations based on hackneyed observations made at a nightclub. Let’s instead acknowledge the complexity of our co-workers, the value of diverse communication, the implicit biases that we must overcome, and the value of recognizing and appreciating difference. We can even laugh along the way.

Matthew CB Lyle is an assistant professor of management in the UCCS College of Business whose research can be found in journals such as Organization Studies and the Journal of Organizational Behavior.