Women Leaders and Likeability: Get to the Point!

by David Nour

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has ratcheted up the conversation on female leadership, likeability, and the perceived penalty women pay for daring to be as ambitious as men.

Women Leaders and LikeabilityIn the decades I’ve been researching, speaking and writing about Relationship Economics, I’ve seen my share of unpleasantness around gender and leadership styles. I’ve heard the grumbling in the halls after a tough meeting—“man-eater, bitch, watch your step around her.” But I’ve also heard “she’s astute, focused, bright—real intellectual horsepower.”  I’ve worked with enough competent, effective, personable women to know women have the potential to be every bit as good as men in top leadership posts. Angela Brav, CEO-Europe Inter-Continental Hotels is one example. Carol Potts, Vice President, US Global Accounts, Hewlett Packard is another. These women are very good at holding themselves and others accountable. If these women are the face of the new “executive feminist” movement, bring it on.

So what’s the issue here?  Women are aiming squarely at the highest level of corporate leadership. The C-Suite is the new frontier, and women are ready to civilize it. Are the men who now occupy the corner offices ready to be civilized? Change of this scope and scale won’t come without conflict.

Sandberg’s Lean In has generated buzz—and backlash. One line of attack is to criticize Sandberg for her privilege; what does she know about average women’s struggles? Another is to argue with her focus on women’s behavior as the problem. Why is gender equity in corporations a women’s issue? Men stand to benefit from greater equality as well.

In my strategic relationship consulting work with global organizations, I have spent thousands of hours with high performers in a broad array of industries. I am absolutely convinced that individuals’ ability to engage and influence others is the utmost sustainable differentiator. In my books Relationship Economics (2011, Wiley) and Return on Impact (2012, ASAE) I explored how nurturing key relationships delivers return on energy invested. I’ve seen just how good women can be at relationship building—something men often struggle to master.

Each gender identity brings a portfolio of strengths and weaknesses with it, created by who knows what mix of nature and nurture. Some of us fall close to the stereotypes and some of us are significant outliers. The specific blend required to correct weaknesses and leverage strengths will be a different recipe for each. If it’s possible to generalize about “what women need” to succeed at the top leadership levels they are reaching for, I submit that women need the right relationships: mentors and peers who will, with candor, help them develop styles of communication, confrontation, and conflict resolution that work for all involved.

How often are rising women offered formal or informal mentorship? As women transition from front-line producers to managers to senior leaders, where do they learn the appropriate behavior? Each level brings increasing visibility, authority and responsibility. Are these women receiving candid peer-level support? Is someone there to pull a woman aside and tell her, “You could have handled that differently”?

Sandberg’s Lean In cites a body of research that indicates, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” In the weeks since her book’s debut, the blogosphere has been resonating with parries and ripostes. Two examples from Harvard Business Reviews’ blogs: “New Research Shows Success Doesn’t Make Women Less Likable” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman appeared April 4, concluding, “ Likability and success actually go together remarkably well for women.” Decades of social science research has repeatedly found that women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success,” Marianne Cooper shot back in “For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand” three weeks later.

It’s clear that research won’t settle this question anytime soon. So as the “Relationship Economics guru,” let me suggest—we’re trying to solve the wrong problem. Stop thinking about gender and likeability—let’s focus on leadership skills, period.

A woman leader recently said to me with a worried sigh, “Since my promotion, I don’t worry about my to-do list any more. I worry about others’ to do lists.” The real key to leadership—for women or men–is learning to hold others accountable for their outcomes, without confrontation or conflict.

Let’s say that woman—call her Maria—is responsible for John, and he isn’t carrying his weight. Everybody on the team knows it; his weakness is affecting their work. Maria’s stewing about it, but doesn’t want to confront John, for fear of damaging their relationship. John’s peers on the team want the problem addressed, but feel “it’s not my place.” They are spending a lot of time justifying what they’re NOT doing to address John’s problem, and it is wasting cycles and effort for the whole team.

If Maria were male, she might feel more comfortable pulling John aside and just talking about it, buddy to buddy. “What’s going on? You’re impacting the team. What do you need to get on track?” But for whatever reason, Maria is wasting everyone’s energy worrying about it, instead of just grabbing a few minutes with John to work on the problem. If Maria were receiving the mentorship and peer-level support developing leaders need, this situation would be quickly resolved.

We all have a great deal invested in our reputations at work. Women want to be liked and respected—and so do men. It’s a huge motivation for the entire human race. When does that desire to be liked cloud our perception of what’s really going on? When does it keep us from taking necessary action?

Again, it’s a vast generalization to say “what women need” to succeed in leadership is better skill at dealing with confrontation. Instead, let’s say we ALL need constructive confrontation skills. Here are a few tactical recommendations:

  1. Speak your truth, but hold the emotional baggage. Say, “When you don’t meet your deadlines, I worry about our team’s ability to deliver,” not, “You’re screwing it up for all of us!”
  2. Develop a bias for results. Don’t worry about gender—worry about outcomes. Give everyone on your team a common goal.
  3. Realize and act like you are part of something bigger than yourself. When a team understands and believes in the mission, they will collaborate and work through conflicts.

No one, male or female, gains popularity from behaviors that is arrogant, insecure, or inauthentic. So minimize those behaviors. Be more participative than authoritarian as a leader, and likeability will follow.

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Welcome the rise of executive feminism. Diversity at the top is good for all.
  2. Pay attention to how your organization develops its leaders. Make sure women as well as men receive mentorship and peer-level support.
  3. Ignore the research and focus on what matters: accountability for outcomes, in a corporate culture that fosters and rewards excellent communication skills.

If you found these tips from David Nour of value and are a PMP looking to earn PMI PDUs, you might be interested in his self-paced, downloadable courses at PDUs2Go.com.


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