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Women at Work: The Language of War and the Invisible Codes of Honor

03/24/2014 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2014

For many men, the language of business is the language of war. Careers are destroyed, the competition crushed, markets conquered, territory seized, empires created or hurled into oblivion. They read Sun Tzu's The Art of War as a guide to management and fancy themselves the warriors of the business battlefield.

If a businesswoman doesn't command this language, men think she doesn't "get it." If she does, people say she's not a "real" woman. To make matters even more complicated, what men say and how they strut, huff and puff may have very little to do with how they act in reality, away from the battlefield.

Given this ambiguity, businesswomen shouldn't try to be "one of the boys" because this can never be authentic; whenever we move away from our authentic selves, we can never be truly successful. Besides, she's "one of the girls" and as such will have immense difficulties -- and no small amount of confusion -- trying to figure out the mindset and actions of her male colleagues.

It is fine, however, for women to adapt tough talk. But she should be aware that this is the language of the dominant voice in business, which is male. Mindful women have to ponder if they are willing to accept this situation or not. Or do they desire to construct and promote their own unique business vocabulary?

If a businesswoman consciously decides to speak the language of warrior-men, she must be aware that she is sending a clear signal to her male counterparts: "I challenge you. Let's fight." And she may be surprised to find herself in a turf battle she never wished to initiate, fighting over things she doesn't really value, like desk size or parking privileges. A man's bitterest and most entrenched battles often have very little to do with the welfare of the company, but everything to do with his own status, power and image inside the company. This often confuses dynamic businesswomen who think of the well-being of the company first, their egos second.

Businesswomen should also be mindful of the fact that amid the swagger and boastfulness of their male colleagues; there is a subtle yet crucial game of face-saving going on. Men innately understand and respect the core of insecurity that lies at the heart of the fiercest among them. Although men talk tough, they can be in reality quite gentle with their weaker male co-workers, as long as he knows and keeps his place in the wolf pack hierarchy -- which explains, to the bafflement of better qualified women, why incompetent males are often promoted over them. Strong brother will always protect weak brother if weak brother doesn't screw up too much.

In a meeting - especially when the boss is present -- men might be all chest-beating martial glory; but in the lounge that night networking with co-workers, they will show a more sophisticated side, a greater nuance of argument. Women, who have families or partners to tend to after work, often miss out on these key moments in which men solidify alliances, smooth over differences and agree on common strategies and enemies.

Ironically, a woman who feels she has to talk like "one of the boys," may in fact be talking too directly. This is in sharp contrast to the cliché that women use indirect language to indicate what they desire. "Roger's having a rough time these days," a man might say, with the hidden meaning: Roger can't handle his job. A woman who openly says that Roger is incompetent and should be removed will unwittingly cross over the invisible honor code line protecting Roger's fragile masculine self-image. In the end, she, not Roger, will be shunned by her male co-workers.

And woe to her who scoffs at a man's masculinity, no matter how weak or insecure he actually is. This has nothing at all to do with business or getting results, but everything to do with male status and self-respect. Thus challenged, the wormiest of men will feel the need to defend himself and save face in front of his male colleagues. He will summon the vast resources of his networking empire to crush the one who has dared to scratch the thin façade of his self-image. And he will find support -- however illogical for the health of the company.

Given these realities, businesswomen need to power up their interpersonal radar to "read" the intentions and behaviors not only of individual men, but confederations of men -- who might or might not like each other yet will nevertheless protect one another from a common threat -- if it is in their interest. Aware of this, businesswomen can then concentrate their energies on managing their own complicated professional and private lives while remaining true to themselves. The most solid foundations are those constructed from our own authenticity.

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