Communication Theory Application to Workplace Challenges

I had a challenge in the workplace at one point in my career (will not name the organization)[1] when communicating with a male colleague. Every time we communicated I walked away frustrated and defeated. He was combative, aggressive and domineering. I tried altering my communication style, having an open dialogue and even escalating to my manager, but we never could resolve our communications gap. I felt as if we were speaking two different languages.

FreeDigitalPhotos.net - ID 100122417

FreeDigitalPhotos.net – ID 100122417

I can examine this problem using the Critical Tradition, which explores power relations with organizational interactions (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011). This colleague and I definitely experienced power struggles in our communications. He was used to using intimation and domineering tactics and I refused to acquiesce to his demands. Dennis Mumby explores organizational communication and patterns of domination. Mumby uses concepts from hegemony to take a critical look at communications. Hegemony is a worked out set of arrangements in power (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011 p.317)[2].

Free Digital Photos . net ID-100162804

Free Digital Photos . net ID-100162804

There were arrangements of power and hierarchy at the organization where this conflict occurred. Just as Littlejohn and Foss explained in the example of the security guard stopping the chairman of the board because he didn’t have the appropriate security badge, there are certain rules of authority and power in the workplace. Understanding these rules is critical. The employee whom I had challenges with was not my manager and I was not subordinate to him, we were peers. Therefore, he had no authority to provide direction over my actions. As Karen Ashcraft and Brenda Allen explored in their feminist work on organizations, organizations are “fundamentally gendered” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011 p.322)[3]. This male colleague of mine was used to working in a male-dominated environment where all of his colleague’s were male, but his subordinates were female. He didn’t know how to react when he had a female peer that he could not dominate.

Free Digital Photos.Net 100113737

Free Digital Photos.Net 100113737

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she explores gender in the workplace. She identified that even though more than half of American women are the breadwinners in their households, they still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns (Sandberg, 2013). This is largely due to the fact that women aren’t viewed as equals in the workplace. Sandberg speaks to the fact that women are often damned if they do, dammed if they don’t in the workplace. They are expected to communicate like a male, being both assertive and directly, however when they do, they are viewed as difficult. However, she acknowledges that the first step in closing this gender gap is acknowledge the change: “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” (Sandberg, 2013, p.142)[4]. By becoming aware of this gender gap we can work to address the issues.

I read an interesting article regarding the perceptions of leader effectiveness through gendered language that relates to my circumstance. Researchers at the University of Victoria found gender differences in electronic communication, just as they do in face-to-face communication. Females use the words “could” and “would” more often while males were more direct and assertive (Luong, et. al. 2007)[5]. By becoming aware of this gender difference in communication, I could have ensured that my communication style matched my co-workers direct style. This may have helped our communication differences, as we would have been on an even playing field rather than my inadvertently perpetuating the female communication style, which is viewed as subordinate.

Freedigitalphotos.net ID 100109145

Freedigitalphotos.net ID 100109145

At the time, I did try to apply thte Organizational Control Theory, specifically what Cheney and Tompkins refer to as concertive control. According to Littlejohn and Foss, “Concertive control is the use of interpersonal relationships and teamwork as a means of control,” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011 p.306). Every conversation I had with this colleague, I tried to position us on the same side of the fence and approach the conversation as if we were a team. I tried to find common goals and communicate with him in a way that I thought appealed to his motivators. I also tried building a good repoir with him to develop a strong working relationship. However, I did not succeed at this attempt. I think my main mistake was that I started off on the wrong foot with this associate and I was unable to get us back on track. If I would have been aware of these communication theories in the beginning of our working relationship I may have been able to do more to prevent the communication challenges for arising.

What about you? Have you ever had communication challenges with a co-worker? Have you ever felt at a disadvantage in the workplace because of your gender: I’d love to hear from you!


[1] Disclaimer: This personal anecdote does not reflect my current work environment, co-workers or colleagues. This is a previous work experience at a company in which I’m not disclosing.

[2] Littlejohn, S. W. and Foss, K.A. (2011). Theories of Human Communication. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

[3] Littlejohn, S. W. and Foss, K.A. (2011). Theories of Human Communication. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

[4] Sandberg, Sheryl (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. United States: Knopf.

[5] Luong, Alexandra, Durgunoglu, Aydin, Hennek, Jennifer and Mai, Thao (December 2007). Perception of Leader Effectiveness as a Function of Gendered Language in Electronic Mail. Communication Journal of New Zealand. 8(2) 19-30.

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