Are trust-building conversations different for women? In at least one case, absolutely.

We had a really interesting discussion in a team meeting the other day about a trust-building technique that we’ve been espousing for years (one that Charlie Green first wrote about in Trust-Based Selling in 2005 and has been a favorite of mine ever since he taught it to me). We talked about how that technique, when used by women, might unintentionally compromise their trust-building efforts in a big way. This week’s tip digs a little deeper into the issue and proposes a solution that actually applies to women as well as men.

The technique in question is a caveat, which is a short, emotionally honest statement that precedes a tough message—like, “This is awkward …” or, “At the risk of embarrassing myself … ”.

The questions that arose were (1) Can caveats hurt a woman’s credibility and (2) Should women therefore avoid them entirely?

The answers I’ve since come to, thanks to colleague and coach Stewart Hirsch’s thoughtful input based on the work he’s done on implicit bias, is (1) quite possibly, yes, and (2) no.

Caroline Turner, former General Counsel of Coors and author of Difference Works (with whom Stewart has collaborated), helps us understand the why behind both answers.

In Caroline’s article, “Masculine-Feminine Difference: How We Talk,” she describes a masculine-feminine continuum and distinguishes what she calls masculine and feminine language. She reminds us that both men and women operate on both sides of that continuum, and each has its own language. In short, masculine language is marked by declarative statements. Feminine language uses more questions, and, as noted in Caroline’s article, often relies on what Dr. Pat Heim calls disclaimers, hedges and tag questions. Feminine language used in a masculine environment—and vice versa—are where trust issues can arise.

With caveats, which can sound a lot like disclaimers, a more feminine style of speaking could in fact hurt credibility in a more masculine-dominated setting. (A disclaimer has the effect of discounting the message, though that’s not the intent of a caveat.) Examples of problematic caveats in this case include:

  • “I could be wrong …”
  • “I may be missing something …”
  • “I’m not sure how to tell you this …”
  • “At the risk of embarrassing myself …”

Similarly, more masculine-style caveats, like, “You’re not going to like this …” could hurt intimacy in a more feminine-dominated setting. (Side note: I had great difficulty coming up with a lot of masculine-style examples as I am definitely more feminine-style oriented. Suggestions are always welcome.)

The solution is the same for both women and men: know your audience and tailor accordingly. Interestingly, the caveats above could be very effective when applied in the other setting. And when you’re not sure, you could go more neutral:

  • “Heads up …”
  • “I’m not sure how you’re going to react …”
  • “There’s no easy way to say this …”

The solution is definitely not to avoid caveats altogether. That’s because they serve as a warning to the recipient that bad news is on the way, and that warning is an intimacy-builder in and of itself. And intimacy—especially in the face of bad news—is a critical aspect of trust-building for us all.

More Women, Smarter Teams

The title says it all: to help teams perform better, add more women.  An intriguing research project highlighted in the June 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon and Thomas Malone of MIT suggests what makes teams smarter: having more women on them.  The study also points out some things which you might intuitively think would help, but don’t.

In contrast to some earlier studies which used surveys to get feedback from team members, this research examined teams’ performance on solving puzzles and completing team tasks in the lab.  The researchers studied almost 200 teams, with randomly assigned members.  Each team was given tasks to complete, including puzzles, brainstorming, decision-making and solving complex problems.  Woolley and Malone then compared the results of the task-completion to other factors like individual intelligence and group cohesion.

Individual Intelligence Didn’t Matter

It turned out that the sum of the parts did not equal the whole; teams with members who collectively scored higher on standard IQ tests were not the “smartest” teams.  Group cohesion, group satisfaction and other factors we might think would contribute to smarter teams didn’t correlate with performance either.

More Women = Smarter Teams

The one factor which stood out in the research was that the higher the percentage of women in the team, the better the results in team IQs.  The researchers suggest that their findings go beyond “diversity in teams is good;” the data indicates that except at the very extremes, where performance flattens out, the more women on the team the better for the team IQ.

The researchers speculate that this may be due to generally higher social awareness in women, a contributing factor to smarter teams, or to other factors not yet identified.

Five to Fist and the Blogojevich Jury

One fascinating clue to women on teams and how they make decisions is provided by a look inside the Blogojevich jury, made up of eleven women and one man.  Jezebel wrote that instead of taking an immediate up or down vote on various counts, the jury used a teacher’s device of “five to fist” – hold up five fingers if you completely agree, a fist if you completely disagree, and 2, 3 or 4 fingers to indicate that you’re somewhere in between.

In the Chicago Tribune Mary Schmich suggests that:

The jurors reached their decisions with no bullying, no shouting, no pouting. A colleague of mine who has covered a lot of trials said she’s never seen a jury build agreement through so many shades of gray.

My take-away? Make sure your teams have plenty of women, and oh, while you’re at it, try “five to fist” for coming to consensus.

The Dishwasher’s Tale

During a recent conversation, a friend–General Counsel for a large listed company–mentioned that she does not feel appreciated by her CEO for all the work she does; and that feels disheartening.

How often do we hear this? Is this a gender issue? Do females need to feel workforce appreciation more than males?

A Little Appreciation

One of my biggest lessons in life came 30 years ago. I had time between University semesters. I wanted to travel to the country nearest Ireland, where I was studying, where they didn’t speak English. After getting a bus, boat, and train…I arrived at my destination: Belgium, where Flemish is the first language and French the second. Because of the language barrier, I had to work in a position that did not require customer contact.

Hence my job: dishwasher.

Day in and day out I washed glasses, dishes, pots and pans. I think it was the hardest job I have ever completed. Only one of the waiters would come up to me at the end of a shift to say ‘thank you.’ This simple, genuine ‘thank you’ was so warming to my soul that it would make me feel motivated enough to come back into work the next day. Luckily this was a summer job to fund my holiday travels and I only had to work there for one month. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have that job long term.

A Question of Perspectives

I walked away with from that job knowing what a huge difference it makes if someone feels appreciated. Ever since, I have tried to make a point of showing my appreciation–from my client, to the person in the office emptying the rubbish bins, to the lady in the bathroom at the airport cleaning the cubicles, to the tram driver when I get off at my stop and I leave via the door beside the driver.

Recently, I have become more aware of how many others do not do this. I asked colleagues in the office why they do not say ‘thank you’ to the person cleaning their rubbish bins. The answer was almost always, “It’s their job, why should I thank to someone for doing their job?” Maybe this is the perspective of the CEO at my friend’s company.

A Little Less Self-orientation

Imagine if we all proactively practiced genuine appreciation–what a wonderful world we would live in. It reminds me of one lesson of the Trust Equation; that as we empathetically reach out to others by giving them a sense of importance, we simultaneously reduce our own self-orientation.

An old Chinese proverb says it all “Flowers leave some of their fragrance on the hand that bestows them.”

When we make people feel good about themselves we elevate ourselves to greatness as well.

Muses: Really Entertaining Business Blogs by Women

Some of the most entertaining, content-rich and downright helpful business blogs we love are written by women. Here are a few of our favorites. What are yours?

Danah Boyd’s Apophenia is both scholarly and immensely readable. She has real research, real clues and real heart about what’s going on with young social media consumers. Want to know what ‘privacy’ means to teens? Read it and feel smart.

The Barefoot Executive, Carrie Wilkerson, speaks directly to entrepreneurs about such things as the 3 “I”s common to business owners: indecision, insecurity and inactivity. If the shoe fits…add Carrie to your feedly.

Laurie Ruettimann, thecynicalgirl, is the funniest woman on the planet, with no-nonsense (she would say, no bullshit) advice on careers, recruiters, what working means, HR, deodorant, open-toed shoes and cats.

We almost hate to mention Michelle Golden’s Golden Practices Blog, because her posts are infrequent and we’d like a lot more of them, but they are also thoughtful, thought-provoking and full of heart.

In Nina Nets it Out, Nina Simosko covers topics for leaders of all stripes – recently “leaders should do what only they can do.” Simple, straightforward and with many aha moments!

Maureen Rogers writes Pink Slip Blog from Boston, but manages to range all over the world in her writings on layoffs (you knew that from the blog title), the workplace, management and other stuff. Cuban cigars. Yep. McDonalds’ National Hiring Day. Yep. Baseball. But of course.

Chock full of podcasts, webinars and video clips, Jill Konrath’s Selling to Big Companies helps everyone adapt their sales techniques to the Twitter era. This blog is all killer and no filler with plenty of guest bloggers offering their two cents.

And for a longer list, see Natalie MacNeil’s top 30.

Who do YOU love?