When comparing male and female leadership, the dialog is usually framed as men's command-and-control style versus women's team-building or consensus approach. Men reward results. Women prefer to develop consensus.
"Women managers tend to have more of a desire to build than a desire to win," says Debra Burrell, a New York psychotherapist who treats couples and who trained with John Gray, author of the bestselling Mars/Venus books. "Women are more willing to explore compromise and to solicit other people's opinions." By contrast, men often think if they ask other people for advice, they'll be perceived as unsure or an unworthy leader who doesn't have the answers. Working toward buy-in, a frequent strategy for women, is seen by men as a sure sign of weakness or lack of confidence. For that reason, male bosses frequently view women managers as insecure or incompetent and therefore not ready to lead.
On the flip side, we’ve all seen women managers who have gravitated toward the preferred male style, and that mostly doesn’t work well either. Much of the time, these women supervisors attract a reputation for being “difficult” or overly aggressive—whether they truly are or not. It comes down to men being uncomfortable with women assuming this “male” style.
But before waves of protest foam up about surfacing this old “women are too aggressive” stereotype, let me be clear. Studies of gender in the workplace reveal this dilemma as women’s classic Catch-22. Invariably, it’s men at the top who make decisions about senior promotions. So it’s male perceptions that count. Therefore, women managers are seen by men as either lacking confidence (too concerned about consensus) or overly aggessive (too remote and brusque). In other words, women are doomed if they do; dissed if they don’t. In addition, the model for leadership in corporations is still the warrior hero: the determined lone star who rides in, steers the crisis, works every weekend and saves the day and the deals.
Women, though, tend to act as bridge builders in organizations, allowing for more open-mindedness and resilience. Employees, especially women, may hear a lot of pep talk about cooperation and teamwork. Yet connecting people and resources is neither recognized nor rewarded by corporate chiefs. That disconnect, besides the difference in managerial styles, has led many women to become discouraged if not disillusioned. Women adopt the mission and the values of teamwork and perform accordingly, to little notice. Over the last decade especially, many more women are “leaning out,” leaving corporate life to create better ways for them to work and live—alternatives that can support female-tilted needs and behavior.
For example, at Pixo, an IT services provider in Urbana, IL, owner Lori Patterson manages a boutique staff in a sector notorious for do-it-now deadlines and cascading deliverables. After some 15 years of deliberately operating with only 18 employees to allow for slow quality growth, Patterson expanded in 2013 to more than 30. Along the way, she set up a routine of five-minute daily morning meetings for the entire staff, with everyone standing to emphasize the quick in-and-out.
Part of Lori’s motivation is to ensure that newer staffers understand the company’s culture and feel part of the team. “We’ve randomly assigned nicknames to everyone so it feels intimate and everyone can get to know one another,” she says. But those five minutes are really about mission-critical tasks. Each staffer is asked to describe his or her stress level. “Are you green, yellow or red?” is the question. Managers can then focus more effectively. “If it’s red, we want to know what’s going on and what you need,” says Patterson. It’s rare to see men managing staff with quite the same level of efficiency and savvy.
Even so, each gender might benefit by taking a cue from the other. “If a man tones down his command-and-control management style, he can gain deeper trust, greater initiative and, perhaps most importantly, a climate that facilitates thinking out of the box,” says Kimberly Eddleston, PhD, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University in Boston. “That’s because men’s transactional tradition usually causes staff and stakeholders to worry more about making mistakes than about how to grow sales or profits.” The goal is to delegate outcomes rather than monitor tasks. Women, however, need to be careful not to rely on relationships at the expense of imposing exacting performance standards.
Women define success and business differently, and, just maybe, we’re beginning to get our due.
Joanna L. Krotz is the author of Being Equal Doesn’t Mean Being the Same: Why Behaving Like a Girl Can Change Your Life and Grow Your Business, a call to action to women to become entrepreneurs to find parity and purpose, and The Intelligent Guide to Giving. She hosts The Woman’s Playbook podcasts and frequently writes and speaks on women’s advancement.