What does it take to get to the top?
It’s a question that most professionals grapple with — particularly women, who are dramatically underrepresented in top leadership positions.
Researchers at talent management consulting firm Caliper wanted to find out if there are certain personality traits associated with women’s leadership success, as well as challenges that hold them back.
They asked 85 women at the senior vice president level or above who managed a functional area like marketing, research and development, and sales, to take a personality assessment and a series of surveys about their success in 15 different performance areas.
They found six personality traits that were associated with higher performance ratings. Here are the traits, with a brief summary of each provided by organizational psychologist Thomas E. Schoenfelder, Ph.D., the senior vice president of Research and Development at Caliper:
Assertiveness: Being straightforward in your communication style
Aggressiveness: Bringing in a constructive, emotional element to move projects forward
Empathy: Being able to understand and relate to the feelings of others
Ego-Strength: Being resilient and able to overcome challenges
Stress Tolerance: Being comfortable in high-stress environments
Energy: Bringing vitality and enthusiasm to your work
It seems a woman who has a straightforward communication style, is resilient and able to handle stress, and is able to relate to others may be best positioned for leadership success in the modern workplace.
On the other hand, the researchers found a negative relationship between self-rated performance and being accommodating. “Accommodation is the degree that you want to be helpful and liked by others,” says Schoenfelder. “People with a high level of accommodation struggle in leadership” because success relies on influencing others.
A common challenge that women face is a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” It was first identified in the 1990s among minority groups taking standardized tests. If they were alerted to their race before the test, it tended to have a negative impact on their scores.
By the same token, if you make women aware of the negative stereotypes of women in leadership, they aspire to leadership less, Schoenfelder says. When that happens, women’s lowered aspirations are based on the stereotype that leadership isn’t feminine rather than their own ambitions.
Counter to the traits of high-performing women, he says that wanting to follow the rules, being less assertive and less empathic, and having a negative reaction to stress makes women more vulnerable to stereotype threat.
The best defence? Self-awareness, says Schoenfelder.