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Calling All Women Executives: Be a Little More Paranoid (Part 2)

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Part 2 in a Calling All Women Executives Series (View Part 1)


Q: What is one thing men and women in business have in common?
A: They both distrust men

I was recently discussing with leadership guru and author of thirty one books on leadership and his recent book, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership (Jossey-Bass), Warren Bennis, my primary focus on coaching high potential senior management and executive women to more effectively, successfully and smoothly navigate male dominated organizations and companies.

I explained to Warren that after I meet with women and offer them tailor made prescriptive solutions that they can immediately use, they respond with, "How soon can we meet again?" and that after offering that and even a game changing "breakthrough" to a man, they will respond with, "That's fascinating! I'll get back to you about that" (which they usually don't). As it happens, women want coaching to be better at their non-technical skills especially in dealing with men; more often men need to get better at their non-technical skills, but don't want it, often resent having to have those skills and prefer to retreat to their core competencies even though they don't realize that are being commoditized and already being outsourced.

Warren mentioned in his role as a "first class noticer" (a la Saul Bellow) that women ought to be slightly more paranoid/cautious in business (like men). I asked him to say more. Warren explained: "Men are guarded with nearly everyone and are very cautious about showing vulnerability. To men, 'vulnerability' means being exposed or in danger. Very few men view it as being open. Women are often too open and men too often have a knee jerk reaction to that and experience it as intrusive, when in reality it is just being direct and wanting to focus on getting the work at hand done, because they then have to rush home to take care of kids, aging parents and the house."

We then discussed how women feel safer (at least in their non-work world) to express themselves verbally and often talk first and then because of that are better able to clarify their thoughts. Men on the other hand will often think first and be more careful about what they say, because they have a primal belief that if the say the wrong thing to the wrong man, he will go back to his office and come back and shoot you.

Women don't quite have that primitive fear of being killed if they emotionally express themselves. Put down, yes, killed no.

A few years ago I experienced that when a man cut me off in traffic and my wife yelled at him and flipped him off (now you know who wears the pants in my family). At that point I looked at my wife and said, "Oh, that's great! You just angered this guy and he's now going to start a fight that I have to finish. And in this day of women's equality, don't be surprised if he takes out a gun and shoots us both. Thank you very much!"

There are many explanations for this lack of paranoia in women. It could be related to more estrogen and oxytocin (the bonding hormone) in women, more testosterone in men or to the way women were raised to connect to people and men were raised to not trust anyone.

Another explanation may be a structure in the brain called the corpus callosum that is a fiber network that connects our right (emotional) cerebral hemisphere with our left (logical) cerebral hemisphere. It is thicker in women than in men.

This means that during distress, men are coming from two separate brains -- either they can become violently aggressive (right emotional brain) or coldly logical (left logical brain) -- that have little power to influence each other. This may help men adapt to war where getting emotional when a friend has just been exploded is not as important as getting information back to a command post.

On the other hand in women, left and right brains are more often in contact. This may explain women's sixth sense where they are able to know where their baby is and what they're doing, from hearing a sound in another room that a man could never know, and also enables them to know when a man is lying to them. It may also explain why fewer women start wars or engage in physical and other violence than men.

On another level, since men's left and right brains are not as fluidly connected as in women, men are often trying to override and control their emotional reaction by trying to come from their logical side. The fact that this it is sometimes quite difficult to do this, may explain the coldness of men who are in fact trying not to become angrier and then risk losing control, exploding and becoming violent towards someone they are supposed to protect. Because of not trusting their own emotionality to not do something destructive, they project that fear onto women and think they will do the same when they become emotional.

Since women's left and right brains are more in contact with each other (and each side can mitigate the effects of the other), they are better able to feel and express their upset verbally (whereas men will resort to a destructive action).

This may explain why when there is a conflict or an uncomfortable rift between a man and a woman, the man will not step into the gap unless what the women says makes sense and the woman will not step into it unless what the man says feels right.

The French might say, "Vive la difference," but it might be more accurate to say, "La difference vive" and the differences will always be there. The more men and women understand and get where each other are coming from and then don't react to it, the greater both men's and women's chance for success and maybe a lot more collaboration and even a little peace between the sexes. And mutual enjoyment will not be far behind.

An earlier version of this post referred to prolactin instead of oxytocin.