Relationships Shape Women’s Communications

Welcome to my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and valuable information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please forward these weekly Wednesday blogs to your family, friends and colleagues! In the 1970s, a lab at Harvard University conducted a well-known study that explored the stages of moral and ethical development. Two subjects who were part of this study were Amy and Jake, bright, articulate eleven year olds.

Amy and Jake were told a story that involved an ethical dilemma. It is called The Heinz Dilemma. The children were told that Mr. Heinz faced a difficult decision. He must decide whether to steal an expensive drug he cannot afford. The drug will save the life of his dying wife.

When presented with the Heinz Dilemma, Jake responded that the life of Mr. Heinz’s wife is more important than the rule to not steal, and he suggested that Mr. Heinz is justified in stealing the drug to save his wife. Jake pointed out that if Mr. Heinz were caught, a judge would probably understand and go easy on him. This response placed Jake in what was considered by the researchers to be an appropriate stage of moral and ethical development for his age. What are the characteristics of Jake’s response? Linear, logical, impersonal, and black and white.

Amy’s response was different from Jake’s. She believed that Mr. Heinz should not steal the drug. She thought there must be other ways of obtaining it. She didn’t know what those were, but she thought there had to be another option. She also thought that stealing might have very bad consequences. If Mr. Heinz did steal the drug he might be arrested and taken to jail, and then he could not take care of his dying wife.

What are the characteristics of Amy’s approach? Instead of linear, it is multidimensional; instead of black and white, it is multicolored; instead of impersonal, it is highly personal. Amy believed there had to be a way to solve this problem without resorting to an unethical choice.

How was Amy’s response reviewed? Her refusal to accept the either/or situation was evaluated poorly. It was interpreted that her open-ended exploration of the situation indicated a failure of logic and an inability to think for herself. She was placed in a lower stage of ethical and moral development for her age.

The Power of Connection, Communication and Relationships

Just as Amy’s more nuanced response was dismissed and devalued by the researchers, many women working in our established structures today are not rewarded for contributing their best ideas to the discussion at hand. Just like Amy, women use a logic of effectiveness that builds on the power of connection, communication, and relationships…and that ability is, unfortunately, often viewed as a negative.

Here are some facts about women and how they communicate their stance on an issue or their ideas:

  • Women are most concerned about how to do the right thing and get the job done. Often, that means working with others in cooperation and collaboration rather than meting out black and white decisions.
  • Women are more concerned about using interpersonal skills to solve problems. They seek input from others in meetings and during discussions to get the best solutions.
  • Women are more active in creating community. They spend time rallying people together around a cause or idea.
  • Women enjoy using relational skills. They like to talk things out, build camaraderie during tense issues, and make sure everyone gets a say in the matter.

All of the above are essential skills for delivering high performance results—whether those results are in the boardroom, on the platform, or in the home.

So what do we learn from Amy and Jake?

This one example gives us an opportunity to explore the differences in the ways that men and women approach and solve problems, communicate, and relate to others. It gives us a chance to discover how we can take advantage of these differences to contribute to workplace effectiveness. Most importantly, it reminds us that these very real differences can be integrated and blended to create the best possible options for high performance, productivity and success.