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Is Hardball for Women Still Useful?

20 March 2018

Barbara read Hardball for Women: Winning at the Game of Business: Third Edition by Pat Heim and Tammy Hughes and considered some actions women can take to get their work goals accomplished. (Men could do more to help address gender inequities by reading this book, too.)

Tags: barbara read, communication, leadership, women and leadership

I read this book when it was published in 1992 and just read the revised 2015 edition. Even though the back cover says, it’s the “bestselling guide fully updated for the Post-Lean In Era,” the authors’ research confirmed my fears: the workplace hasn’t changed as much in the past 20+ years as I’d hoped.

Heim and Hughes say the business world is played according to men’s rules and is based on behaviors boys learned growing up, which most girls did not. These differences cause trouble in the work place because in business, the game is often competitive, hierarchical, and hardball.  Many women are caught unaware of the phenomenon and rightfully think it is unfair when they realize what is going on. The authors say it’s important to understand the game that is being played around you and what it will cost if you decide not to play.

Truth be told, I found this book as distasteful today as I did when I read it 25 years ago. In fact, I think there may be women who will be frustrated with me for promoting some of the authors’ suggestions because it gives credibility to the premise of a power dynamic between genders. However, I think it is useful to understand the origins of the competitive nature of the workplace and the reasons the authors give for why men and women behave so differently. When we understand the dynamics, we can choose whether—and how—to address them, and I know some clients and others who will be glad to have new strategies to try to change the dynamics in the workplace.

With that premise, it’s helpful to consider some of the authors’ observations about what boys and girls learned when they are growing up. For one, boys were often outside playing in groups—sports, cowboys and Indians, war—with a hierarchical relationship structure. The coach or the strongest boy was at the top, and you had to do what he said, or you didn’t get to play. The goal was to win the game, and it didn’t matter if there were boys on the team that you didn’t like. If they could move the ball and win the point, they were valued. Most coaches were yelling criticism all the time, so boys learned not to be devastated by it or take it personally. They viewed criticism as a way to learn and win.

Meanwhile, many girls grew up playing one-on-one in a flat structure, and they wanted to keep the power dead even. If a girl is haughty with her playmate, her friend will go home, so she learns to work hard to keep her friend happy. Heim and Hughes say girls “learn exceptional interpersonal skills, including how to ‘read’ and respond to others’ emotions.” There’s no competition when playing dolls, and there is no one yelling constant corrections. When this happens at work, women tend take it personally and replay the criticism in their heads for days.

Men take these behaviors they learned as boys into the workplace and are always jockeying to get into a higher position than the next guy. If they’re one up, they’re winning. If they’re one down in power, they are losing. Knowing the most sports trivia on a particular day is a win. Asking a lot of questions or admitting they are confused about something is a one down position, so men don’t do it. They pretend they know what they are doing even if they don’t. They think they will figure it out.

Women take their learned behaviors into the work place, too, but they often discover their behaviors don’t get the results they did when they were girls because the game is being played by men’s rules. When given an assignment, women will talk to lots of people, listen well to their suggestions, and then decide what to do. A woman thinks she is building relationships, but often her male boss will think she is a loose cannon, bouncing all over the place instead of getting right to the task he has given her.

Given this reality and context, what are we to do? The authors provide some suggestions for how to play ‘hardball’ with men.

  • Get to your main point quickly, using a strong voice that doesn’t inflect up at the end of the sentence as if you are asking for permission for your idea.
  • If you are interrupted, keep talking with the same tone and speed and act as if you weren’t interrupted.
  • Stay calm when constructive criticism is coming your way. Learn what you can from it and then stop thinking about it. (The ‘stop thinking about it’ part is a particularly tall order for me.)
  • If you are verbally attacked, keep your shoulders open in a power position and don’t fold in on yourself. Don’t rub your neck or pat your hands for comfort.Keeping your body still with just a few gestures makes you seem confident even if you aren’t.
  • Don’t cry. (This tool can help when you feel tears or any other strong emotion overtaking you.)
  • Don’t be shocked by verbal banter or jockeying for social position before and after a meeting. If you can join in (which I absolutely cannot) that’s a bonus, but don’t let it surprise you that men are still friendly and can work together after throwing around insults.

However, these behaviors may not be persuasive with other women in the organization. With other women or men who don’t play by traditional rules, women leaders need to build relationships by asking, listening to, and remembering personal information. “How are you doing? How’s your family? How was your daughter's soccer game?” Female bosses have to give instructions to other women just as male bosses do, but a friendly, firm tone, especially the first time a request is made, may help things go more smoothly.

I remain hopeful than men and women can work together to change norms, but I doubt they can make much progress if they don’t fully understand the game. I’m struck by the fact that I don’t like the stories that I hear these authors describe, but I do recognize them. As I watch the ups and down of the debate around gender inequity and especially the #metoo movement, it makes me even more committed to helping men and women figure out how to be agents of change, and to tell the stories of women (like my daughter) who are breaking the mold.


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