‘Leaning in’ might actually work

Research on women who demonstrate stereotypically male behaviours at work has yielded mixed findings.

On the one hand, some studies suggest those women are less liked and evaluated more negatively. On the other hand, there’s evidence that those women benefit from acting in atypical or surprising ways.

Now, a new study helps clarify some of the confusion by highlighting certain contexts in which women’s unexpected behaviour can work to their advantage.

Specifically, women who act assertively on behalf of their teams may be given more credit for being leaders than men who act the same way, the study’s findings suggest.

For the study, led by Klodiana Lanaj, assistant professor of management at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration, researchers looked at 181 MBA students in the US, about 72% of whom were men. Students were organised into five-person self-managing teams for their first year in the program, and there was at least one woman per team.

At the study’s outset, participants completed a survey that measured personal data and personality traits.

After about six weeks of working with their teams, participants rated each of their team members on different kinds of leadership behaviours: task-related, boundary-spanning, and social. Task-related behaviours involve organising the team’s work; boundary-spanning behaviours entail coordinating with people outside the group to help the team’s performance; and social behaviours involve listening to the thoughts and feelings of other team members.

Approximately four months later, participants rated each of their members on leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. Leadership emergence is based on factors such as how much an individual exhibits leadership in the team, influences team decisions, and leads team conversations. Leadership effectiveness, on the other hand, is based on factors such as whether that person is a good leader, helps the group achieve success, and makes wise decisions.

Results showed that, when women exhibited task-related and boundary-spanning behaviours (otherwise known as agentic behaviours), they were rated higher on measures of leadership emergence than men who demonstrated the exact same behaviours. In academic speak, women “over-emerge” as leaders compared to men.

Or in other words, as noted in a release summarizing the study findings, women get more credit for leadership than men do when they plan the team’s work, suggest creative ways to address problems, or look outside the team for new resources.

In the release, Lanaj said: “When women’s assertive or take-charge initiatives are in the service of a team, they not only are accepted but make a greater impression than similar endeavours by men.” Still, she noted that the credit women receive for acting on behalf of the group may not be enough to counter the resentment they often face for self-promotion.

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Agentic behaviours are still relatively unexpected in women, so they make a greater impression on teammates than the same behaviours in men. VFS Digital Design/flickr

These findings add some nuance to an argument by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who suggested in her book “Lean In” that women “hold ourselves back in ways both big and small by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

Lanaj added in the release: “Women not only gain by leaning in, but gain disproportionately compared to male colleagues. In effect, they enjoy a bonus for leaning in.”

The study authors say that’s likely because these behaviours are still relatively unexpected in women, so they make a greater impression on teammates than the same behaviours in men.

The study findings could suggest that women who want to overcome gender bias within self-managing teams should make more of an effort to demonstrate agentic leadership behaviours, which could give them additional credibility in the eyes of their teammates.

Of course, the study authors are quick to add that simply telling women to act more assertive on behalf of their teams isn’t getting at the issue underlying gender bias. Instead, we need to change our conception of leadership to encompass all kinds of behaviours — both agentic and social.

In the future, the researchers hope to examine whether women who over-emerge as leaders are also less liked by team members, given the body of research that suggests women who demonstrate agent behaviours may experience social backlash.

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