His Brain, Her Brain

The 1990s was deemed the Decade of the Brain, a movement sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health. It prompted, for the first time, deep research on the physiological differences between male and female brains. Until then, researchers assumed there were no significant differences.

 As it turns out, areas of the limbic system of the brain vary between men and women and are known to produce different behavioral tendencies.  For example, in women, the anterior cortex may be responsible for the increased harboring of emotional memories, particularly ones of making mistakes. So women will carefully guard against the potential of failure, to the point of their own detriment.

 The insular cortex is responsible for perception and intuition—traits that allow women to read others emotions, a quality many male leaders see as a strength. Women want consensus and use intuition to take the temperature of the meeting room. Men are more willing to just tell people what to do and expect it to be done. As a leader, of course, you have to make decisions and give direction. But executing well also requires buy-in.

 Men love competition and tactics. Women love to envision. Men want to get things done quickly. Women tend to want to take more time to explore opportunities. How does this play out in business meetings?

 What kind of thinking you need depends on the situation. Sometimes you have to put out fires; sometimes you need to slow down to make strategic decisions for long-term sustainability and success.

 What happens when there are only men at the table? How quickly do problems get solved? Are the solutions long-lasting? Does the meeting turn into a competition over who talks the loudest or who has the last word? Are the perspectives of the other intelligent but less assertive people really heard or considered?  

 What if there are only women at the table? Too much time can be spent on envisioning instead of defining and assigning action. Too much energy (and money) may be spent on trying to make something work because of an emotional attachment to the idea, rather than moving on to something more effective.  

 Here’s the reality: The world needs both kinds of thinking. At the same time. Especially in business. When we’re making decisions that affect hundreds and thousands of people (add up the numbers of your customers, employees, vendors, and all their families), why wouldn’t we want both kinds of thinking in order to come up with the best products and services for our customers?

 To learn more about brains and business, read chapter 4, Hardwiring: His Brain, Her Brain, in my new book, Money on  the Table, How to Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership, available here .