No one argues the importance of communication in the workplace, especially communication that results in colleagues learning from each other. Sometimes, though, the communication is more condescending than educational. If one party is trying to impart wisdom but the other party is more knowledgeable on the topic, resentment—not learning—is likely to result.
An exact definition may not exist, but the phenomenon many call “mansplaining” can be a culprit injecting bitterness into the workplace. The term has been gaining traction since the publication of a 2008 essay by author Rebecca Solnit titled “Men Explain Things to Me.” In her essay, she tells of conversations with men in which they assume they know more about the topic of discussion than she does.
The term got another boost in November when Sweden’s largest workers union, Unionen, opened a telephone hotline for people to swap stories and ideas about mansplaining. A flood of calls hit the hotline, many from men who wanted to explore whether they were guilty of mansplaining and how to avoid it.
It’s not always ill-informed men offering explanations to better-informed women. Sometimes men offer condescending explanations to other men, and women can do the same to men and other women. But even when the communication isn’t prompted by conscious gender bias, it can get in the way of productive and respectful workplace interactions. That’s when it becomes a human resources issue.
“There are challenges with men and women in the workplace in terms of inclusion and diversity,” Brad Federman, chief operating officer and an employee engagement and performance management expert for F&H Solutions Group in Memphis, Tennessee, says.
“Mansplaining can be a real thing. Women tend to listen and nurture, while men compete and fix,” Federman says. “However, it is more complicated than that. Each individual is different and should be approached as such. Generalizations can only be made across large populations.”
Culture versus personality
It may be natural for HR to react to a mansplaining problem by offering training, but Federman says before assuming training is the answer, HR needs to determine if the problem is a culture issue or the product of personality differences.
“If it is a culture issue that reinforces, supports, and rewards competition and extraversion, then you are going to have a lot more of that,” Federman says. Training men on the benefits of the inclusion of women won’t work if the culture doesn’t welcome such inclusion.
“If it is truly a gender issue, then providing training for men and for women makes the most sense,” Federman says.
Sometimes the problem is attributable to personality differences, not gender bias, Federman says. “You have similar kinds of experiences that occur with extraversion versus introversion preferences, and so you may have a personality difference going on rather than a gender difference,” he says. “So the first step needs to be: Determine what is really happening here. Diagnose, diagnose, diagnose! Otherwise, you are going to make it worse, not better.”
If a workplace communications problem is a result of personality differences, Federman suggests getting people to understand the differences through assessments such as the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator and the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior) instrument.
Training not the only consideration
Men and women in the workplace are individuals and may not fit into expected communication styles, but in general women need to understand “the kind of personal power they have and how to manage through male-dominated situations,” Federman says, and “men need to learn to be more aware of how they approach things, how different that is from the way women may approach things.” Plus, men need to be “more cognizant and aware of their behavior.”
If a workplace experiences a mansplaining problem that is cultural, HR needs to think about more than just training. Company norms, values, and competencies also need to be considered, Federman says, as well as the way the organization recruits, hires, and onboards people and the way it promotes and manages performance.
When the problem is truly about gender, Federman says training is a good option, and he suggests looking at training as a process in which HR needs to consider:
- What’s the right curriculum for women?
- What’s the right curriculum for men?
- How should men and women be brought together after going through some of that training jointly?
- How can the learning be put into practice and additional learning be gained in a more realistic situation that crosses genders?
“We would recommend not training or just dealing with the culprits because then it looks like a clear performance management issue and demonizes certain people when you are dealing with a broader issue,” Federman says. But if the problem truly is a result of one or two people, “then by all means deal with those one or two people.”
Are people just too sensitive?
HR might be justified in wondering if people might be excessively sensitive, imagining more of a problem than really exists. Federman says that’s a valid concern. “There is a danger of responding to people who are overly sensitive and creating a broader problem, which is why we would not create training or encourage people to create training that focuses on the guilty and people’s mistakes but rather focuses on the kind of organization we are trying to create and best practices in terms of creating that organization,” he says.
“We really should do this in a way that lifts people up, that demonstrates the opportunities in front of them and how we can leverage each other more,” Federman says. “That’s where the opportunity is.”
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR Web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.