Deciphering the triggers: It turns out there’s a “code”

4m4jdmqq_400x400My last post (Your opportunity to be treated as badly as the men) struck a chord with more than a few women. The responses were mostly positive. The last line quoting John Wayne’s advice to Barbara Walters – “Don’t let the bastards get you down” – got this response from a former military officer and graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School:

Excellent take! In 21 years of active duty, my sole focus was on accomplishing the unit’s mission. Gender was the last thing on my mind at any given time. I never had any of these issues that the media seems so fond of focusing on.

An old friend simply said, “Go, John!” adding a few thumbs up emojis for emphasis.

It wasn’t all good news, however. One respondent agreed that my “point about women being treated as men is worthy”. Then she went on to say that she cringed at my description of the women pinning Veterans’ Day carnations on the lapels of us vets as “…past their prime but still beautiful…”   “Ouch,” she added for effect.

My first response was to apologize. I had meant it as a compliment. “I thought it [the gesture] was sweet,” I added.

“I am sharing with you so you can hear what some women, myself included, will read in code [emphasis added] that ‘past her prime’ implies that she is no longer of value and that ‘still beautiful’ equates her value had/has much to do with her appearance,” she went on.

Wow!

There’s a “code”? Is it written down somewhere? Can I get a copy?

I was mystified.

“I rarely point this out because I don’t believe it’s worth the time. But I thought I would share with you because I believe that you believe in meritocracy and therefore, would want to know if you hit any pain points that would give people, women, pause,” she added when I followed up. “Yes, I promise that ‘past her prime’ is code and a trigger.”

A trigger? Well, yeah.   I remember once hearing a senior female executive say, “the problem with this place is that it’s too pale, too stale and too male.” That triggered a response in this old, white guy.

In a follow up email, she added, “I am sharing my thoughts and those of my posse…”

She has a posse?

I slumped back in my chair. “What a great friend,” thought I. How many women had stopped reading my post in the first paragraph? How would I even know I had “triggered” that response if she hadn’t pointed it out?

The focus of this blog is the corner office. As a CEO (reluctant or otherwise), one bears the responsibility of leadership. Effective communication is critical. Language and its use can be your friend or your undoing. A CEO can’t lead effectively without decoding the likely response from his or her staff.

Still, I wish I could get a copy of that code.