Communication problems in your twenties

January 23, 2015

"Men get feedback more easily than women. Everyone's afraid of hurting women's feelings." - Joanna Barsh

I'm about to release a new show focusing on the careers of women in their twenties. I did it because a listener asked. But at the time I admit I wasnt that interested in the topic. How different could navigating the work world be from when I was that age?

A lot, as it happens. Much of the stuff that comes up in the show, which will be out next week, is about communication. I've learned it can be incredibly exasperating for millennials of either sex when they try to communicate with older colleagues (insert your own joke here about how Gen Xers and others cope with being on the end of those attempts). They have their own shortand for connecting with eachother, but two of my guests talked about how tough it is to translate that to the office, with its weird rules and roundabout ways of getting things done. 

But there's a gender thing I want to write about. The person I interviewed gets to be anonymous because, well, she likes her job and doesn't want to stir up any trouble. She's new to the workplace. She and her boyfriend work at the same place, on the same team. Recently there was a big decision the team was asked to contribute to - it had to send an idea to the two top brass, via a direct manager, a young man.

The team's idea was ultimately rejected. My interviewee wanted to clarify why, so first she wrote to the higher-ups and asked if they could meet to discuss it. She heard back that she had to go through the interim manager first. So that was her first frustration, that she couldn't speak directly with the ultimate decision-makers, she had to go through their deputy (to her, an absurdly indirect way of doing things, and inefficient). But then came the reaction of the deputy manager to her emailed request. She wrote to him saying she thought there had been some communication problems in getting across the team's idea, and could they meet to talk about it?

His reply came: "It’s OK, we can figure out something to do with this later, I don’t want anyone to be upset."

Her boyfriend wrote an almost identical email, but the reply he got from the guy was quite different.

"I completely agree with you, I take responsibility for the communication problems. Let's figure out a time to talk."

This surprised her.

"His response to me was more placating than anything else," she says. "'It’s OK, everything’s fine, don’t be sad. Don’t be upset. Don’t cry.' And I feel like the tone of our emails [hers and her boyfriend's] was very similar. It was, 'I have some concerns, can you talk about these concerns?'" 

This incident tallies with research that shows men are uncomfortable giving women feedback. When I spoke to former McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh in 2012, this was one of the things she talked about: that men will often assume that a woman will crumble on hearing something difficult. So they end up soft-peddling whatever it is they want to say. As a result, the woman often doesn't get the honest feedback she needs to progress at work. 

But in this case, the young male manager was getting ahead of himself. He already seemed to assume a request to 'talk' from a female co-worker meant she was upset about something. When a man wrote to him about the same thing, he met the request with equanimity. It's just another example of how a small act of communication is often deceptively tricky, especially when you throw gender into the mix.