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Women Leadership

Focus on delivery.
Cope with office politics.
Get along.
Be more confident. 

This is the kind of advice trusted colleagues give women hoping to rise into senior roles.

A wealth of research shows that female leaders, much more than male leaders, face the need to be warm and nice, as well as competent or tough. The problem is that these qualities are often seen as opposites. Researchers wanted to know how successful women experience and manage these paradoxical demands on a day-to-day basis. In the article, they talk about a number of paradoxes women are confronted with and they identified a few strategies these leaders use to manage them.

Four Balancing Acts

The article talks about four paradoxes, all stemming from the need to be both tough and nice, that these women confront.

  • Paradox 1: Demanding yet caring: The female executives in the studies explained they must demand high performance from others, while also demonstrating that they care about them.
  • Paradox 2: Authoritative yet participative: This paradox lies between asserting one’s competence, and admitting one’s vulnerability and asking others to collaborate.
  • Paradox 3: Advocating for themselves yet serving others: The third paradox involves meeting one’s needs and goals as well as others’. Focusing too heavily on one side can cause serious trouble.
  • Paradox 4: Maintaining distance yet being approachable: The study subjects sometimes struggled to be seen as leaders, separate from colleagues and team members, while also developing close relationships.

Strategies for Managing the Tensions

The findings of the study suggest that to successfully navigate these paradoxes, women leaders first need to become aware of them, teasing out the different tensions rolled up into the central nice/tough double bind. Then, they can develop and customize a repertoire of strategies to manage, thereby enhancing their effectiveness and resilience. Five strategies were identified:

  • Adapt to the situation. Most of the study subjects told us that they demonstrate niceness and toughness in different situations, toward different audiences.
  • Go in order. Another strategy is to be nice (or caring and collaborative) first, then tough (or demanding and directive). First, you build relationships, establish trust, and engage people, and then you follow up with harder behavior or language to challenge the status quo or achieve goals.
  • Look for win-wins. Many women we talked to focused on identifying opportunities where niceness and toughness converge — what they sometimes called a “win-win” strategy.
  • Be tough on tasks and soft on people. With this strategy, women leaders focused on simultaneously being nice to people and tough on tasks.
  • Reframe. We found that the leaders also tried to reframe what it meant to be nice and tough. They focused on connecting the two and reinforcing positive associations. This involved recasting behaviors that might be considered weaknesses as strengths.

Source: Blog was inspired by the HBR article ‘How Women Manage the Gendered Norms of Leadership by Wei Zheng, Ronit Kark and Alyson Meister

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