Are we really so different after all?

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).


2 replies »

  1. Perhaps the sign of a great leader is their ability to use different leadership techniques with different people as compared to their different personal attributes.

    Recently I attended a Professional Development trip to Gettysburg PA where we spent 3 days discussing the events of the US Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. This monumental battle was essentially the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. We studied CSA Gen Lee orders, direction and decisions in some detail.

    It was interesting to note that Gen Lee’s instructions to his subordinates were often phrased in “Southern Gentleman” terminology. As a prime example, he directed one of his Corps Commanders, Lt Gen Ewall, on the first day of the battle to “take Cemetery Hill if possible”. Lt Gen Ewall took this “direction” to mean that an attack on the feature was at his “discretion”. He “opted out” of an attack, believing that his men were exhausted having suffered many casualties in battles earlier in the day and that he would have little chance of success. Gen Lee was mortified when he learned of Lt Gen Ewall’s option to not attack the hill. Success in taking the hill on the first day of the battle would surely have lead to a Union defeat.

    Gen Lee was used to his “polite suggestions” being taken as “orders”. Lt Gen Stonewall Jackson, unfortunately killed at the Battle of Fredricksburg, was a dynamic subordinate who always responded to Lee’s “suggestions” as orders to be carried out to their fullest extent. Perhaps if Gen Lee had taken into account that Lt Gen Ewall’s attributes were somewhat less “aggressive” than Lt Gen Jackson’s and been more direct in his instructions to his subordinate, he may have changed history as we know it today.

  2. In the profession that I am in we call the process that you have described as “Wearing the appropriate mask.”

    The leaders, male & female, have learned to wear many masks through their lifetime. It’s not surprising or even uncommon to see a shift in leadership style depending on the environment that those leaders find themselves in.

    Each of us do the same. What is the face we wear when stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation? Is it the one we wear when giving a lecture to students, or the happy go lucky devil may care fool? Hopefully not! It’s quite possibly the look of being humbled for being caught and we know we deserve a ticket.

    Ask a professional poker player. They have the fine art of constructing their mask down to a science, and, they also know how to deconstruct their opponents’ masks. It is also an art and science for our political leaders on the campaign trail.

    I would suggest that “Full range leadership” involves a great deal more for true leaders than just dealing with the stereotypes above. I would suggest it deals with a full range of masks carefully developed over a lifetime of dealing with the world your leader grew up in. It may also explain why some great leaders have a huge blind spot or two. Absence of a life experience, so, that mask was never developed and that includes the absence of empathy, sympathy and knowledge.

    And we have also found out that when we wear a mask we can be anyone we want to be behind that mask. Scary if you think too hard about this one.

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