Few Executives Are Self-Aware, But Women Have the Edge
So is the best man for the job a woman?
Research by Hay Group, culled from its 17,000-person behavioral competency database in 2012, finds that when it comes to empathy, influence, and the ability to manage conflicts in the executive level, women show more skill than men. Specifically, women are more likely to show empathy as a strength, demonstrate strong ability in conflict management, show skills in influence, and have a sense of self-awareness.
"Women often face barriers throughout their careers that require them to develop these skills to excel and advance in their organizations," says Ruth Malloy, global managing director for leadership and talent at Hay Group. Malloy adds that the shift from hierarchy where individual achievement matters to matrix organizations where teamwork counts put a premium on the skills that women have mastered.
"Influence and conflict management are not necessarily inborn, these competencies more often are learned," Malloy added in an email interview. Research by Hay Group found that "women scored higher on these matrix competencies compared to their male counterparts. My hypothesis is that these women who broke the glass ceiling as a population acquired and demonstrated more of these competencies to overcome obstacles to succeed."
"I think women leaders do have to manage the female stereotype of being more relationship focused, softer or nicer," says Malloy. "Behaviors associated with strong leadership tend to be more consistent with the masculine stereotype."
"Women face the double-bind when taking on leadership positions. If their behavior is too feminine they are seen as too soft and incompetent, however if their behavior is too masculine they are perceived negatively."
So why, despite these strengths, don't we see more women in senior management? The reasons are complicated, even for ambitious, highly skilled women. One reason may be that successful women managers must demonstrate more leadership skills. According to Malloy, "Research the Hay Group conduced on outstanding women leaders found that they navigate this double-bind by using a combination of both stereotypically masculine leadership styles (e.g., being Authoritative or Visionary) and feminine leadership styles (e.g., being more Affiliative or Participative)." Men by contrast only need to demonstrate the "masculine" leadership styles.
Another challenge is how these top job openings are framed. When the role is framed less as an opportunity to demonstrate acquired expertise and more as a role that would give a high potential candidate a chance to grow and learn, "women and other diverse constituencies are more likely to be recognized" as suitable for promotion to senior positions. That's assuming, though, that their skills and strengths have been recognized. And that's the third obstacle: recognition for strong interpersonal skills is not straightforward. As Malloy says, "these [interpersonal] competencies are also more challenging to demonstrate."
Finally, the single area where both female and male managers need to improve is in self-awareness. While women did outperform men on that metric, notice how low the rates for both genders are — under 20%. "If you think about most people in our day-to-day lives we tend to run on auto-pilot," says Malloy. "We often are not mindful about our impact on others or how and where we spend our time. We can easily get caught up in the task or the day-to-day distractions" and pay less attention to ourselves and effect we may have on others.
"Improving self-awareness requires getting some source of credible feedback, and being open to that feedback," she advises. "Find a trusted colleague or someone from your personal life who can give you constructive feedback in real-time."
Malloy continues, "Developing self-awareness also requires reflection... Schedule time every week on your calendar to reflect on what went well, what did not, and how could you react differently in the future."
Self-awareness is essential to effective leadership. A leader must know herself — her abilities, her shortcomings, and her opportunities for growth in order to be able to provide direction, guidance and inspiration to others.
Leadership demands strong interpersonal skills. And while research may show that women leaders have the edge in certain areas, the lesson I take from this study is that both men and women have work to do in order to become the leaders their followers need.