I’m a interrupter. Guilty as charged. I have been working to correct that obnoxious practice of verbal interruptions for some time, but I have yet to be fully reformed. I know cutting someone off mid-sentence is irritating. I know that my diving headlong into my own point of view on a topic is really rude. But I also know as a woman, when processing something in a group of verbally “energetic” males, that if I don’t dive in somewhere – I’ll get nowhere.
We’ve all seen her. The woman waiting patiently on the sidelines listening for a chance to speak. It seldom comes when men in male dominated groups start verbally competing with each other. And I know from experience that the waiting period does one of two things to me – I either get so focused on what the guys are saying that I forget my concern/question/point. Or, I get really frustrated and pissed off. Either way, the outcome is not productive.
My experience in female dominated groups however, is very different. I’m not nearly as likely to come from a defensive posture, or feel the need to fight to be heard. In fact, when the women I work with cut someone off mid-sentence, they are likely to be called on these verbal interruptions, or at least be given strong signals to stop the behavior.
According to Leonard Karakowsky, Kenneth McBey and Diane Miller, my experience is quite common. Women often have to fight to be heard in male dominated groups, particularly when the topic itself is culturally considered to be male – stereotyped. In fact, the researchers found that men will interrupt 1.39 times more in male-dominated groups. Similarly, women will interrupt 1.39 times more when engaging with a male dominated group – as long as they have proven competency in the topic area. Women will commit verbal interruptions only 1.11 times more frequently in female dominated groups.
Known in scientific circles as “verbal power displays”, the tactic of interrupting has not only social costs but often results in the “interruptors” being less likely to be viewed as team leaders. And for good reason, as it turns out, this kind of behavior can lower the effectiveness of the entire group.
Anita Williams Woolley, Associate professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon, has done some interesting research on collective intelligence – a sort of team IQ score. She and her colleagues have observed that the overall effectiveness of working teams is strongly correlated with the number of contributing women in the group. But if the dynamic is “male-patterned” with lots of verbal power displays, women often do not contribute to their best capability, and the collective intelligence of the group is lowered. In fact, the ability of high ranking female executives is similarly impacted, as indicated by an article in the Financial Times titled “Research Round-up: Making the Most of Top Female Staff”; “ Companies that appoint more female executives might not be reaping the benefits of gender diversity because their culture is still too dominated by competition rather than collaboration”, as exhibited in a culture that tolerates verbal interruptions.
You could raise these findings with your team the next time you have to fight to be heard….
And…. you could check out my group process tool, Shift/POV, as a way to change your team’s interpersonal dynamic – while increasing awareness of their verbal power displays and elevating their collective intelligence!