So much of our recent research on leadership focuses on differences between people. A lot of research suggests that women and men are different in leadership style, in that women are relationship or people focused and men are task oriented. This has led to a lot of discussion about the ideal leadership style – task vs. people. Bruce Avolio says that we need both to be effective leaders – he calls it full range leadership.
But our over-emphasis and over-generalization of the differences between men and women’s leadership styles has led to the assumption that women behave only one way (as do men.) Alice Eagly and Blair Johnson (1990) found that both men and women use people and task orientation pretty much equally, when in single sex groups. Men will use more people orientation and less task orientation when they are surrounded exclusively by other men, and women will use more task orientation and less people orientation when in the company of women. The conclusion? That women are not hard-wired to be more relationship oriented, but rather, tend to behave in this way in mixed gender groups in order to meet stereotype expectations. The same holds true for men – they aren’t naturally more task or action oriented, but when in mixed groups, they tend to behave that way to fit the expectations of the group.
Research suggests that men benefit when they adopt a more balanced approach to leadership – that is when they include relationship orientation, alongside a task orientation. This isn’t the case for women – they do not receive higher overall leadership ratings when they include a task orientation along side a relationship orientation or even for a relationship orientation.
So rather than thinking about differences, and assuming that these differences apply to everyone, we might be better off to think about similarities. Instead of reinforcing stereotypes, we would be better off helping others become more effective leaders, no matter their gender, colour or orientation. Rather than assume that all women are about relationship and all men are about tasks, our challenge is to learn to balance task and relationship as leaders, and to give credit to everyone when they do so.
Source Eagly, Alice H., and Blair T. Johnson. 1990. Gender and leadership style: A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin 108, (2): 233-256, http://search.proquest.com/docview/614296222?accountid=15115 (accessed June 20, 2014).