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No, He Didn’t Steal Your Idea: Communication Barriers and Workplace Stress

Let’s start today’s post with a hypothetical:

You are a woman working closely with men in a professional environment. You’re in a meeting and you share an idea. It’s quickly glossed over by your male colleagues. The next day, your male coworker comes in and tells your boss your idea from yesterday’s meeting, seemingly taking all the credit for himself. Your boss is on board, and no one acknowledges that it was your idea in the first place!

This is a complaint we hear regularly from women in the workplace. “Men just don’t listen!” Most women cite this as the number one reason for changing jobs. “Not all men!” is often the response we hear from the male perspective, and now we have a problem - communication breaks down, it leads to staff turnover, which we all know is costly for the company and bad for staff morale.

A recent study out of the University of Southern California indicates that men and women react very differently to stress. For women, stress can increase brain activity, causing them to feel frantic or energized. For men, it’s the exact opposite. The study shows that if placed under too much stress, the male brain will literally start to shut down and decrease activity. Can you see how this could go badly? A perfect storm where one side needs to communicate everything all at once, and the other side needs to destimulate and organize their thoughts, it’s no wonder men and women sometimes have trouble working together!

Knowing this research, we can start to make changes in our own behaviour at work. We don’t need to shame men (or women for that matter) for biological reactions to stress - you can’t change your basal brain chemistry on a whim. However, as a woman you may need to recognize that yelling at a man at work may achieve the opposite of the desired effect. As a man, you may need to realize that she isn’t “just talking” at you, her brain is rapid-firing trying to organize itself. He isn’t lazy, uncooperative, or not listening, and she isn’t a chatterbox saying the same thing over and over again. It’s just our biology dealing with stress in very different ways.

So, how might the business professional take this knowledge into the workplace?

Work on your communication methods with the opposite sex. Ladies, slow your roll. Work on being more concise (I personally find numbered lists to be really helpful here), and try not to give extraneous details where they’re not necessary (your cousin’s boyfriend’s sister is probably not relevant to why the vendor hasn’t called back). Men, we would really appreciate it if you gave us a verbal or physical indication that our voice was heard. Seriously, just a “sounds good” or “yeah” or even just a thumbs up works! Women often end up feeling dismissed or disregarded if we don’t receive confirmation, and this is why men are accused of stealing women’s ideas at work. The fact is they didn’t steal it, it was just a good idea that merited repeating; but there was no verbal confirmation, and it gets lost in translation as a stolen idea.

Bailey Davall