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April 29, 2008

Staff Picks: Andrea Learned reviews "What Men Don't Tell Women About Business"

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 5:39 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Exposed: The Alpha Businessman's Non-Feminine Ways by Andrea Learned
I'm not sure I've ever come across a guy as "alpha" as Christopher V. Flett, the author of What Men Don't Tell Women About Business. He just doesn't seem like the type of guy who'd be capable of casually enjoying a happy hour beer. Still, his book definitely shed some light toward my better understanding of male-female interactions in the business world.
What caught my attention first was Flett's discussion of how men measure other men in business. It was like reading an anthropological case study--I really had no idea men might seriously be thinking this way. (And, I did unscientific research with some male friends who confirmed it.) His measurements list includes three things--visibility, credibility and profitability--all of which fit right into the research of sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, who found that men communicate asymmetrically around status or positioning as opposed to the more symmetrical, common ground-finding communication style of women (see her classic book, You Just Don't Understand, for more).
This drive for apparent comparative success derives from the fact that men still, as he puts it: "are judged by society by our ability to generate wealth." Depressing as that may sound, isn't it true? Wishing men were judged by their good citizen/husband/father attributes in our culture is akin to wishing women were judged by their brains and management (household and business) savvy, first and foremost.
I could see how such a founding point of view (subconscious as it may be) might affect male-female workplace inter-personal relationships. Picture this scenario: A man's female colleague wants to chat about her kid's soccer game. Meanwhile, his thought balloon reads like this: "No time for this! Must - make - money to stay visible, credible and profitable!"
Now, women are certainly plenty focused on making money in this day and age, but they have been socialized to go about it differently and often tend up settling for less. Something Flett would seem to think that a lot of men just wouldn't do. All told, he seems to believe that alpha male motivation and molding in the workplace is pretty diametrically opposed to a typically female (or even "beta" male) perspective. Given this, it is actually a bit of a wonder that so much business has been conducted successfully over the years.
Flett seems to get a teensy bit more personal (or maybe that's just my female opinion?) when he comments on how women don't support one another in down times, while men do tend to support other men when in their down times. I'm not so sure that's a fair generalization. However, when he discusses the way women tend to give up power, it seemed dead on to me. He shares the way his wife once called in sick to her boss and rather than just saying, "I'll be in at 11 am," she went into major detail about how she hadn't been feeling well all morning etc... As Flett points out--women are known to be better communicators than men, but sometimes their sharing is so process-focused that the goal gets lost. The Alpha male, on the other hand, never loses sight of that goal.
Another apparent self-sabotage mechanism for women is the way they tend to compare failures more than they compare successes (as men are so much more likely to do). Flett writes: "When one talks about how bad her life is, the rest of her support group jumps in to talk about how their experience is worse." Perhaps, just as positioning and status games can seem like obstacles to getting anything done, a woman's tendency to seek common ground in all situations may also get in the way.
At one point, Flett discusses men's discomfort with, or fear of, women in the workplace. A litigious society will do that. Men realize that bawdy humor or "I can beat that" stories make some women feel uncomfortable, but men are uncomfortable with what they think are more typically "female" topics too. What to do? As he writes about men, "When we are acting weird, it is because our default switch is now set to clam up when there is a situation that could be misconstrued." Thus the sudden end of many a conversation (about anything) when a woman comes within earshot of a gathering of men. Eggshells abound.
There's a chapter in What Men Don't Tell Women About Business that very thoroughly outlines what men consider to be currency and what the various levels are, including salary ranges (freshmen level - <$50,00/year, to graduate level- $100,000/month), watches and cars. I really just skimmed over those details, and then, a few weeks later happened to be in a roomful of men in a very male-dominated industry. I couldn't help but notice the "levels" of watches and smart phone gadgets displayed. Fascinating.
Later in the book, Flett offers up specific examples of questions women may have (from a database he's compiled from his years coaching them, I assume) and how he'd suggest the situations be handled. The questions vary in their seriousness (from whether or not to go drinking with the gang all the time to what to do if a male counterpart takes credit for your work) While I don't doubt that he's had women ask him about such things, I am still astounded to think that "in this day and age" they still need to be addressed. Sigh.
It is worth noting: In What Men Don't Tell Women About Business, Flett seems to be writing about an intensely and somewhat old-fashioned sounding (to me) corporate environment. Much of what he covers may not be relevant to the many of us who no longer work within such structures, or who mainly correspond with colleagues via email with only the occasional on-site meeting. There may also be cultural (Flett is Canadian) and generational differences to consider in the mix.
And, while what Flett covers may well be true in a number of corporations today, I have to believe that the younger men I've seen coming up in the business ranks will be better able to communicate with/work among female associates (and vice versa) than the Alpha male he represents. Call me Pollyanna.
There is something to be said for calling a spade a spade, and whether or not we love his approach or agree with everything he writes--Flett did that with this book. We have seen the enemy and it is actually ourselves. Men and women alike continue to perpetuate the workplace gender roles and stereotypes we've lazily gotten used to over the years.
The hope would be that What Men Don't Tell Women About Business will raise the awareness of female readers who will then decide for themselves how to use his insights and impressions, or not. If women would then also talk about this with their male colleagues, that would be the bonus--but then Flett wouldn't have needed to write it.
Andrea Learned is the co-author of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy-and How to Increase Your Share of the Market, and sole author of 9 Minds on Marketing, a free eBook in which she took on the task of reading nine marketing books, interviewing the authors, and writing an essay on each to elucidate the points that she found most provocative.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.