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How gender affects the decision-making process

This post is an excerpt from”Gender Intelligence,” by Barbara Annis and Keith Merron (HarperBusiness, May 2014). Buy the book at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Not too long ago, we conducted a Gender Intelligence workshop with a senior leadership team responsible for global innovation and marketing. As part of the session, we asked both men and women in the workshop to describe the biggest difficulties they have working with members of the opposite gender. One of the senior women spoke up first, expressing a deep-felt frustration shared by the other women in the group that got right to the heart of the issue for everyone in the room. “When it comes to making decisions,” she said, “they don’t think things through. They just react, react, react!”

The top executive in the room, who happened to be male, quickly retorted, “That’s our job. We’re supposed to be efficient in narrowing down our options in order to make the best decisions.”

“No,” the woman disagreed, “our job is to be effective.” “But that’s the most efficient way of being effective! Otherwise, we’ll never get to a decision and assign resources. We don’t have time to just reflect, reflect, reflect! We have to react quickly.”

In the normal workplace environment, this is where the conversation might have ended. It’s so ingrained in American culture that efficacy is equal to efficiency, that different ways of doing and being aren’t often considered. In this case, the workshop offered a space to talk through the differences. Undeterred, the woman pressed on. “It’s not just about thinking and reacting faster; it’s about thinking better and reacting appropriately. Let me give you an example. Recently, there were four projects that you guys — and it was just you men in that meeting that day — decided to kill. We had all been developing those programs for weeks. I still have no idea why you decided to shelve them. If we could have kept going I think they could have been successful.” At this, the other women on her team nodded vigorously in agreement.

As the workshop progressed, and as we walked through the brain science research we discussed at the beginning of the chapter, the top executive and other men in the room linked back to what their team member had said about reacting too quickly and limiting the field of options. They realized they were “very male” in their approach, especially in assessing the four projects they had terminated. The male leader not only had a huge “aha!” moment that afternoon, but expressed an amazing turnaround in his thinking that demonstrates the power and potential of Gender Intelligence.

“Let’s put a test to what we learned today… what I learned today,” he clarified. “Let’s resurrect those four projects and look at them together to see if there was something we missed.” They did, and three of those projects ended up being huge successes for the company.

Just as in the above example, men and women often find themselves polarized in the workplace, divided by their differences in decision-making styles. It’s a natural and highly valuable inclination on the part of men to narrow down solutions and attempt to implement solutions as quickly as possible. It gets the problem solved. Conversely, it’s a powerful instinct on the part of women to collaborate, to see to it that all voices are heard in order to get all the ideas out on the table before making a decision. This process allows space for the more innovative approach or a more creative or longer-term solution.

The challenge is that the male style, though powerful in its own right, doesn’t incorporate the balanced perspective women often bring to the table. It’s almost as if there’s a fear that divergent thinking might hinder progress, or that the best conclusion might not be reached if more options are first considered. On the other hand, the more female style doesn’t incorporate the targeted focus. Decisions can stall out, held back by a fear not everything is being considered and not everyone is being heard when making decisions.

A Blended Model

In order to create a new model that takes the best from each approach, the classic business problem-solving process must be revamped. The classic model itself is highly linear and thus may prove suboptimal for solving highly complex and uncertain problems. We are buoyed by the many researchers and practitioners of creativity and problem-solving who are finding alternatives to the linear, male-designed approach. Instead, they allow for expanded thinking and ways of seeing, grounded in more of a blend of male and female styles. The Theory U system of problem-solving is one such emerging system. Developed by Otto Scharmer, a thought leader in the field of organizational behavior, and others, it advocates a more balanced problem-solving approach, which involves five phases:

  1. Co-initiating, during which a common intention is developed;
  2. Co-sensing, during which participants open their hearts and minds and from this expanded place begin to identify causes and patterns in the causes;
  3. Presencing, during which participants go into a place of silence to allow deeper, inner knowing and intuition to emerge;
  4. Co-creating, during which expanded and deeper solutions are explored;
  5. Co-evolving, during which participants see and take action from a more holistic perspective.


As many emerging problem-solving processes do, Theory U places a high value not just on the active thought process, but also on the “being” states needed to identify breakthrough solutions to knotty problems. This is the more seemingly passive but highly creative time necessary for truly innovative thinking.

This and other similar methods are paving a way for a new and exciting blended male/female approach that better fits today’s global business environment and takes our underlying differences into account.

One of the greatest contemporary examples of the value of bringing together the efficiency and effectiveness of the male and female points of view is found in IKEA, the international home products corporation known as much for affordable furniture with simple lines as for the iconic pictographs that stand in for assembly instructions.

Founded in 1943, IKEA developed a very successful business concept based on teenage founder Ingvar Kamprad’s vision of efficiency in warehousing and shipping furniture.
For decades the company sold furniture exclusively from catalogs. After placing their orders, customers would receive flat boxes efficiently filled with unassembled furniture along with detailed instructions on how to assemble their new bookcase or table. That was how IKEA did it for close to fifty years, and it worked.

In 1985, the first U.S. store opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Female executives at IKEA headquarters in Leiden, Netherlands, wanted to create a unique experience for their new market. Statistics showed that women in the United States made 90 percent of the purchasing decisions for furniture, and American women were not inclined to part with their cash based on nothing more than a picture in a catalog.

The IKEA execs felt that shoppers should be able to experience what the furniture would look like when completely assembled — whether in a living room, kitchen, bedroom, or child’s room. IKEA decided to create showrooms in the United States and other countries, creating a “what would it look like if I lived there” perspective. Homey touches were added, including wall art, pillows, and toys. The approach was particularly appealing to women, who were, at the time, and still are, the larger percentage of buyers. Sales skyrocketed and today, because of this change, IKEA is the largest furniture retailer in the world.

As it turns out, men love the showroom idea as well — for different reasons. It’s far easier to follow assembly directions and determine the amount of space needed for the furniture item after having seen the fully assembled product in the showroom.

IKEA is the perfect example of packaged efficiency created by men combined with the added outside-the-box experience conceived by women looking to improve on an already great concept. This is Gender Intelligence in action — men and women bridging efficiency and effectiveness to create a better product, resulting in true innovation and increased market share.

Conflict Resolution, the Blame Game, and Finding Resolution

Just as with problem-solving and decision-making, men and women tend to deal with conflict and conflict resolution differently. (If you have a significant other of a different gender, you probably don’t need us to tell you that.) Going back to the science of the brain, we now understand that how we deal with conflict is very much instinctual. The stress associated with conflict only enhances each gender’s natural, and in many ways, unconscious manner of dealing with conflict as our bodies strive to reduce stress and find balance.

Remembering women’s enhanced abilities to ascribe emotional significance and recall past emotional events, we shouldn’t be surprised that women’s first reaction to conflict is to personalize the situation and ask themselves, “What have I done wrong?” While that is going on internally, they will seem relatively calm and collected in their initial reaction. In the face of conflict, many women hold back their response while they try to make sense of the situation. They do this by gathering information, often in the form of listening attentively to others. Tapping in to the emotional side of their brain and effectively processing and coding emotional experiences, they’ll work on their reaction to conflict internally — even if only briefly — before they respond.

While women tend to personalize and turn inward, men typically externalize the issue, instinctively and instantly looking outside to someone or something else at which they can direct blame, irritation, or anger. Minor issues often elicit a physical reaction as an immediate response, from raising their voice to slamming their hand on a table. If an issue is overwhelming, men will often mentally (and initially physically) remove themselves from the issue to think it through on their own. There are several reasons why, including not wanting to react with anger or out of concern their reaction may be too strong. During this time, unlike women, men are unable to process information coming in from others. Instead of listening, they are engaged in an internal thought process. While women might interpret the men’s behavior as tuning out or being dismissive or avoidant, in reality the men need time to think it through and will often come back when they are ready to move forward.

If we think about how our bodies are hardwired to respond, we realize that these different reactions are mostly about reducing stress. Women’s natural reaction is to internalize and take it personally, that is, they’ll tend to and befriend those close to them, to protect existing relationships and gain greater understanding. Men’s natural reaction is to externalize and immediately process or fight the issue or engage in flight by completely ignoring the problem in the moment and coming back to deal with it later.

The different ways in which women and men react initially to conflict informs and influences the way in which they attempt to resolve the issue. Men tend to get competitive and often take a win-lose position while women instinctively strive for the win-win. Couple that difference with the tendency for women to want to talk through conflict and with men’s preference to think through problems on their own in isolation and it’s no wonder that conflict in the workplace only widens the divide between genders.

If we broaden our view of what constitutes conflict in the work environment, we see that these tendencies color everything from contract negotiations to engaging with customers. Women tend to look for collaborative solutions and ways to compromise and serve the needs of others, even at their own professional expense.

For women, addressing conflict is primarily about building alliances. That’s a key reason women tend to approach a conflict by treating it as an opportunity — a chance to clear the air, to build rapport, and to get closer in the relationship. Women assume, from the start, that the way to solve a conflict is through conciliation. “Winning” is not usually the real point.

Men, on the other hand, tend to address conflict by staking out a position — treating interpersonal conflict in much the same way as a negotiation. Unlike women, men tend to depersonalize and detach themselves from the conflict from the onset and, whether they win or lose, to let go of all the feelings once the conflict is resolved. At times, it amazes women how men can argue vehemently and at times violently with each other, only to continue on as if nothing happened when the argument is done. For women, the relationship would have lasting impacts from a similar altercation.

In blending styles, this latter ability to let go of the charged emotion is an important skill women can learn from men: exercise the muscle that lets it go. Even when the conflict is resolved, whether win-win or win-lose, it tends not to be really resolved for women who, prompted by their internal wiring, will replay and ruminate about past conflicts. One of the biggest “aha!” moments for women we work with tends to come from learning to be more rigorous in their practice of what we call “exquisite self-care,” in part by learning to let go of conflict once it is resolved, especially in the case of a win-win outcome.

Whether in problem-solving, decision-making, or conflict resolution, what we see in each instance is the value in knowing the limitations of one pattern of thinking. Making the proper choice according to context is the height of business intelligence. True wisdom and leadership lie in knowing what style is called for and in what times.

In the 1970s, IBM launched a memorable television commercial with the theme “Great Minds Think Alike.” The ad depicted men in identical blue suits, with white shirts and red ties, all sitting together in a conference room. This advertising campaign was paraded with pride — the success model for organizations, the ad suggested, lay in thinking the same way. Because IBM was a dominant leader in business at the time, many companies looked to emulate IBM’s marketplace success.

Of course, fast-forward from that moment and we see that IBM’s success hit a plateau in the late 1980s. When Lou Gerstner became CEO in 1993, he pivoted away from those blue suits in mental lockstep and the company’s theme was turned on its head: “Great Minds Think UnAlike.” The changes at IBM mirror the shift in business thinking that was reinforced by the realization that we are indeed hardwired differently.

Nonetheless, as far as we’ve come, “thinking alike” is still the reflexive mindset of many leaders and organizations today, primarily because the male-dominant work model still characterizes so many of the elements and style of today’s workplace environment. It ensures speed in problem-solving and decision-making and tends to downplay subjective experiences and values as well as the nonmeasurable dimensions of emotions, relationships, and individual creativity.

It is no accident that the status quo aligns so well with the way men are hardwired to think — efficiently, sequentially, and with singular focus.

“Great minds think unalike” is a meaningful departure from that old standard in order to bring attention to the value of “difference-thinking” — a key feature of the gender-intelligent organization. Uniformity in thought may have been a point of strength in the past, but not so much in the last forty years or so, not in today’s complex world, and not in tomorrow’s. Thinking unalike is and will be the more successful approach to problem-solving and decision-making.

So, what makes great minds think unalike? Well, it’s the nature of men and women to think differently. It has been and will always be the best piece of equipment we have in our human survival toolbox. The key is learning how to make that difference work for us today.

Strength Through Difference

We’ve realized so much progress through the mechanistic, driven, competitive male mind — there’s no doubt about it. However, now the question is, what could the world look like if we took the best of both styles, blending men’s and women’s unique and highly complementary minds?

By rooting this question firmly in the empirical findings of brain sc ence research, we can begin a truly transformational conversation that ends the blame game for good. Our goal is that men and women alike will begin to recognize, value, and include these differences and begin to listen to one another in a more generous and appreciative way.

To appreciate and value difference creates an indelible shift in our attitudes and behaviors — a remarkable change that we’ve experienced firsthand. By sharing the science behind our gender differences in our practice over the past twenty-seven years, we have helped countless men and women around the world learn to relate with one another, and not just as business colleagues. This awareness and valuing of our hardwired differences has also helped us improve our patience and understanding as couples, and in our efforts as parents, looking to raise sons and daughters to become authentic men and women.

Understanding that our differences are complementary strengths and not offsetting weaknesses goes a long way to ending misunderstanding and miscommunication. That’s the intellectual and emotional transformation we need to embrace and commit to making an enduring part of our leadership of self and others.

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