A friend of mine, a clever, civilised man, once worked as a private banker to Fred Goodwin, during his reign of madness at Royal Bank of Scotland. My friend's field was not actually customer relationships, but Goodwin insisted that he would deal only with the most senior person in the bank where my friend worked.
It was a difficult personal relationship, partly because Goodwin had no understanding of the choreography of normal, social conversation. One day, my friend's PA sent out a letter to Goodwin that was, accidentally, a first draft, and carried a few of her red pen corrections of her grammatical mistakes. Goodwin exploded into a terrifying rage and told my friend that his career in banking was finished. In fact, he went on to head a bigger bank, while Goodwin... well we know what happened.
I was reminded of this during David Hare's play about the financial crisis, The Power of Yes. A character revelation about Goodwin was that he did not think that he had done anything wrong, although he agreed to apologise. A colossal self-belief, an inability to empathise and a hideous temper – these are not exclusively male vices, but they are associated with alpha male bankers. Let us not forget the staff motivational talk on tackling rivals by the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld: "I want to reach down their throats and rip out their heart and eat it – before they die."
If a woman had made the same speech, it might have gone more like this: "I know you're all working hard, and some of you have half-term coming up, but we just have to push harder [a childbirth metaphor] to be one of the companies that survives." She might finish with a phrase used long before it was appropriated by George Osborne: "Remember, we are all in this together."
According to a new book called Code Switching: How to Talk So Men Will Listen, women's office emails are as different from men's as Sylvia Plath is from Norman Mailer. Male emails are short and precise. Women's emails are longer, more personal and discursive. I would guess they are more likely to end with kisses.
Actually, the length and discursive quality of my emails probably depends more on how busy I am. But women do put more thought into office emails. They are more sensitive to tone and interpretation. A man might write: "Kate. Are you at the gym this lunch time or at your desk? When you are free we can do the figures."
A woman would see an ambiguity. Is it slacking or admirable to go to the gym? Is there sarcasm in the phrase "When you are free"? She might amend the email to the following: "Hi John, let me know when's a good time to go through the figures. I'm very impressed to see your gym kit by your desk! I thought it was a productive meeting in Luton yesterday. Best wishes, Kate xx"
In her concern for the self-esteem of her colleague, has the woman sacrificed her own authority or star quality? As for kisses, I try never send them to colleagues, although I persist outside the office. Of course, once you have started, you cannot stop – it is a bit like nuclear proliferation.
According to one of the alpha males in The Power of Yes, fear and greed remain the great motivators in the City, and need only to be correctly aligned. Yet now that very few companies can offer financial incentives, a female approach may be more recession-friendly. It's not a time for ripping out hearts, but for conducting patient physiotherapy.Reuse content