Walking The Workplace Tightrope

iStock_000017490863XSmallBy Hadley Catalano (Boston)

It’s a balancing act for women in leadership positions. Cautiously steadying the professional tightrope between exhibiting likeable behaviors and leading effectively.

According to Marianne Cooper, sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, this is the double bind.

She explained, “When in positions of leadership women are expected to be decisive and forceful, assertive and confident, but because they are women, are also expected to be nice, friendly, and supportive.”

So how are women maintaining equilibrium between the expectations of acceptable personality and successful managerial actions? Are top-female execs choosing between being liked and being respected in order to maintain their post at the helm?

Childhood Theories

The convention of the “labyrinth” – the term social psychologist, Alice Eagly, uses to define obstacles that women face en-route to the top– was first constructed in early in childhood. Parents, elders, and schoolteachers introduced both boys and girls to their first expected gender roles, stereotypes that have guided our society for generations. Particularly for women, this was when the tightrope was first pulled taut – defining the line of acceptable, appropriate feminine behavior.

“Women get that idea at a young age when they are reprimanded for ‘crossing the line,’ like when a girl is outspoken or aggressive she is called ‘bossy’,” Cooper said. “Today women are keenly aware that people react negatively to them when they are highly competent and assertive.”

Cooper added, “If a woman acts competitively, if she demonstrates decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she ‘should’ behave,” She explained, noting that women face an even steeper bias in male-dominated industries.

So how are women working through the stereotypical character profiling and finding tactical balance to lead effectively?

Balance and Scale

Cooper explains that firstly women leaders need to be aware of this dynamic as they think about their approach to leadership, which includes finding the right balance between likeability and competence, assertiveness and niceness.

The unwritten rules of the game dictating silent norms about how we as women are expected to act are certainly at play. However, it is worth noting that the norms that dictate how leaders should act are in fact evolving.

“This broader understanding of leadership is more welcoming and less of a turn off than traditional outdated models, like command and control styles of leadership that are very authoritarian and top down,” Cooper said.

She continued, “Many people don’t aspire to leadership roles if that’s the type of person they have to be…Often women are interested in social relationships, at motivating people and encouraging others. Drawing people into their team. That skill set is becoming more crucial. If conceptions of leadership continue to expand to include these kinds of characteristics, it’s likely that more women will start to perceive leadership as being a fit with who they are as people.”

Personality Assessment

In correlation with finding character and managerial balance, effective leadership also comes from finding personal balance – capitalizing on individual personality strengths while learning to develop qualities outside our character profile. In order to cross stereotypical personality thresholds and break down supposed gender norms.

Jeffrey Sugerman, Mark Scullard, and Emma Wilhelm, co-authors of The 8 Dimensions of Leadership, found that personality plays a factor in leadership style. “The sense of who you are and what you prioritize as a leader is your leadership default setting,” wrote the authors in an article for Leadership Excellence.

Identifying the eight leadership dimensions as Pioneering, Energizing, Affirming, Inclusive, Humble, Deliberate, Resolute, and Commanding the model is displayed in a circumplex, a circular diagram where each pie slice represents a behavior with a mirrored polarizing dimension.

They explain:

“Those dimensions opposite a given leader’s primary dimension should come least naturally to her; without conscious effort, she’ll likely stay in her ‘comfort zone’ of behaviors. If she’s naturally a Commanding leader—that is, forceful, driven, and results-oriented—it will be a stretch for her to dial into the Inclusive dimension (facilitating dialogue and showing diplomacy).”

The study found that personality characteristics are very relevant to leadership, and those who excelled as leaders drew strength not only from with their personality comfort zone, but from a more diverse range of behavioral characteristics.

One important question female executives should try to ask themselves frequently is, “How, as a leader, can I be more effective, how can I move beyond my leadership strengths?”

The authors found three ways that leaders can be more well-rounded:

1. The “hard way,” by seeing if what they do is negatively impacting others;
2. By finding a mentor who has differing strengths;
3. The more involved method of developing a personalized assessment based on “psychological drivers.”

Learn from Experience

From Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, to Elizabeth Warren, Senator of Massachusetts, to Libby Sartain, former CHRO of Southwest Airlines and Yahoo!, as women move forward professionally, it is helpful to learn from the experience of our foremothers ­– to better gauge and understand leadership from a female perspective.

“What it takes to be a leader has been historically defined by men, and while I was determined to be a leader, the last thing in the world I was going to do was to try to be like a man so that I could be taken seriously,” stated Libby Sartain in a recent study on distinguished leaders.

She added, “I had to continue to be myself and create a leadership style that worked for me. I’m just not capable of being anyone other than who I am.”

2 Responses

  1. Good news and bad news – My published research study examining over 60,000 managers indicates that female leaders can be both liked and respected. In this study very little bias emerged in ratings of one’s own female boss, but when asked abstractly if participants would prefer to work for men or women – male bosses were still preferred to female bosses by a 2:1 ratio. For summary and link to research see my blog: