Gender differences and the emotion of business
As a working mediator and former business litigator and trial attorney, I’ve witnessed a heck of a lot of emotional recklessness destroy business opportunities, sunder commercial relationships, and blow up long term employment contracts.
And yet . . . . everyone, man and woman, continues to say, “this is business. I don’t and you shouldn’t, take it personally.”
My hands down all-time favorite attorney – the former managing partner of a mid-sized commercial litigation firm – once said that “I don’t take it personally” is the biggest lie in the business. She knew. When I joined her firm, it had been litigating, on behalf of Lloyds of London, the question whether the State of California had insurance coverage for the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside – the first toxic waste disposal facility designated a Superfund Site way back in 1980.
Attorneys for the State of California put a settlement offer on the table early on. In litigation of this sort, “early on” means sometime within the first five years. Her response – “and that would be in lira? – was followed by the predictable slamming shut of briefcases, the exchange of harsh words and the sound of doors slamming.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason the legal caboose of mediation was invented. The vast majority of lawyers can’t sit still long enough to negotiate resolution unless they hire a hall monitor. And if you think that’s inexpensive, know that the people (men) who are hired to mediate the most intractable disputes, in “bet the company” cases, charge upwards of $28,000 a day.
Who, Me? Angry?
The social scientists who study these things say that the way in which we respond to adversity “often reflects the fact that [our] prestige or status has been threatened more than the fact that [our] purchasing power has been diminished.” Miller (2002) Disrespect and the Experience of Injustice, Annual Review of Psychology.
In other words, the corporate C.E.O., like any other kid on the block, will retaliate when he feels he has been disrespected.
Conversely, research shows that business people are reluctant to recommend legal action if they believe that they and their company have been treated respectfully. Although this is particularly true of fiduciary and special relationships such as lawyer-client and business partnerships of all kinds, it also applies to arm’s length business transactions.
Every commercial interaction, we are told, “represents a social exchange and every form of social behavior represents a resource.” People’s satisfaction with the outcome of a commercial transaction therefore “depends highly, and often primarily, on their perception of the fairness of those outcomes.”
Fairness, That’s Just Another Word for Justice
When I ask groups of lawyers what business they’re in, they never ever say “the justice business.” That’s because the practice of law beats out of us the idea that anything like justice can ever be achieved. That’s the school of hard knocks. What we don’t realize is that our clients still expect justice. Demand it, in fact. And this is the other job mediators have, explaining to the uninitiated why a settlement is a “just” result even when it’s a far worse one than they ever imagined their perfect, spotless legal claim would, if taken to court, deliver to them.
Now I’m going to do something I hate. I’m going to talk in generalities about men and women. My only caution is that my readers understand that neither a generic woman nor a generic man exist in this imperfect world. We are not widgets in a widget factory. We are all weak and strong, liars and truth-seekers, caring and thoughtless, compassionate and heartless and often you’ll find these traits in a single person.
Tears or Bombs (literal and figurative). Which Would You Choose?
Our incredible individual dimensionality aside, there are a few generalities that the social scientists have discovered about the different ways women tend to do business and the various ways in which men tend to do business. There are also different ways in which women display their emotionality and men display theirs. These differences are taught. They are learned. They are enculturated. Boys are taught not to cry. Girls are taught not to shout. Is it any wonder, then, that people in general identify tears as the primary womanly display of emotion and anger as the primary masculine display of emotion.
Here’s the rub. The display of “womanly” emotions in the workplace is punished by co-workers, subordinates and superiors alike.
“She’s lost control of herself,” says the woman in HR. “If she can’t pull herself together, we’ll have to think about demoting her, perhaps even terminating her employment.”
The display of “manly” emotions in the workplace is often the stuff of office gossip, but it is rarely punished. That is, it is rarely punished so long as a man is displaying masculine emotionality, in which case it’s rarely even called an “emotion” because, remember, he doesn’t take business personally. Only she does.
Whose Emotionality Poses the Greatest Danger to the Enterprise?
Last time I looked, no wars were lost, no deals foregone, no business failed because a woman, in fear, frustration or actual grief, broke down in tears, usually alone in her office or in a bathroom stall.
Last time I picked up a newspaper, however, I couldn’t help but notice the number of wars begun, truces broken, regimes toppled, battles waged, leaders assassinated, genocide committed, bombs dropped, women raped, children killed, cities leveled, or people beheaded and, most shockingly, literally crucified as a result of uncontrollable rage.
If women, in such numbers, behaved this way, the human race would surely have died out thousands if not millions of years ago.
So the next time you hear someone complaining about a business or professional woman expressing an emotion, remember that men’s emotions have not only been tolerated, but often lionized, in the workplace. The emotion of business is, my friends, simply not good for business.
Originally on LinkedIn on March 10th 2015