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Many female CEOs I know have the same story. A male job candidate blows them away with his interview and jam-packed CV. His references sing his praises, so she hires him on the spot, excited about the new skills he’ll bring to her company.
A few months later, he’s cleaning out his office. Not because he’s on to bigger and better things, but because he’s consistently underperformed at his job. Despite conversation after conversation with the CEO, things haven’t improved. As she shakes his hand one final time, the CEO is left to ponder just what went wrong.
“I’ve had highly recommended engineers miss deadlines before,” says Susan Johnson, CEO of Women.com. “Or do work that was just not up to par. At some point, you begin to wonder — is it you? Are your male direct reports just not taking you seriously?”
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42.7 percent of managers in the U.S. are female, according to a 2015 report by the International Labour Organization. But that doesn’t mean that our culture is any more used to women in positions of power. “There is evidence that female leaders are evaluated less favorably than their male counterparts, are liked less than their male counterparts, and are penalized for adopting masculine leadership styles,” writes UCLA’s Kim Elsessar in her book "Gender Bias Against Female Leaders: A Review."
But Susan Johnson’s story points to an even bigger problem. Men managed by women often don’t perform as well as when managed by other men — and the women aren’t sure what to do about it.
A communication quandary.
The problem probably begins with communication. Compared to male bosses, female bosses may express their criticisms less aggressively. Studies show that while men see verbal sparring as a normal part of the work environment, women tend to take harsh words to heart. They avoid using them on others — even subordinates.
In some cases, however, harsh words are the only way to get the message across. NOVA Medical CEO Sue Chen recalls a heated conversation she had with her team. She was making a point she considered vitally important, but the message just wasn’t getting through. “My comfort zone does not go above 10 on the Richter scale, but that day I went to 12. I was really angry.”
To Chen’s surprise, her cofounder wasn’t offended — he was impressed. Not only did he end up agreeing with her, he also told her that she should show her aggressive side to more people in the company. So far, Chen hasn’t followed his advice. “Why can’t I be a nice person and also a boss?” she asks.
And there’s the crux of the problem. Most women know how to be harder. But do they want to be?
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“I chose to be a leader who focuses on teamwork and collaboration,” says Susan Johnson. “Could I be harder? Sure. But I don’t run my team that way. And frankly, I just don’t think it’s the most effective.”
Johnson’s instinct is spot on. The research is unequivocal — when women manage teams, there are a myriad of benefits: they are better at keeping employees engaged and are more likely to cultivate new talent on their team. Corporate boards with at least one woman member pay less for successful acquisitions and have significantly higher return on equity. Maybe the answer isn’t teaching women to imitate men — it’s in teaching men to sit back and enjoy the benefits of having a female boss.
But our business culture (and the library of self-help books that it’s spawned) doesn’t do that. Instead of telling men to communicate better and collaborate more, it tells women to mimic “standard business behavior” — a set of standards set, over time, primarily by men. This isn’t just sexist; it also blunts female bosses’ effectiveness by curtailing the skills that make them great. Maybe it’s not women but office culture itself that should change.
“Lean In” shouldn’t mean “man up.”
When "Lean In" came out, there was one particular statistic that was bandied about more often than the others. I’m referring, of course, to the Hewlett-Packard study Sandberg cited about the differing tendencies among men and women when applying for jobs.
It turned out, Sandberg explained, that women would only submit a resume when they feel they meet all of the requirements — men throw their hat in the ring if they make 60 percent of them. “Women need to shift from thinking, ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that — and I’ll learn by doing it.’” Sandberg encouraged.
Related: Do Women Leaders Walk a Tightrope to Be Seen as Effective and Likable?
That sentence sets off alarm bells. Imagine legions of men armed with only 60 percent of the requisite skills setting off to build bridges, perform surgeries, and dismantle bombs. How many accidents, catastrophes and losses could have been avoided if the people in charge were actually fully qualified? Or even 90 percent qualified?
This seems like another case where men could learn from women, instead of the other way around. Why not shift office norms so people of all genders are actually qualified for the jobs they apply for? Studies have shown that men tend to exaggerate their abilities and accomplishments, whereas women downplay theirs. Of course, in many cases that exaggeration is harmless — a normal part of talking yourself up in a job interview or trying to make a good impression on your manager. But there’s a line between being confident and being accurate. More men would do well to respect it, especially when they have a female boss. Otherwise they’re likely to end up like Susan Johnson’s deadline-missing engineers — looking for a new job.
Your boss, not your date.
When I ask most female CEOs this question — what advice would you give to a male subordinate of a female boss — their first response is, “Tell him to treat the female boss exactly the same way he would treat a male boss.”
But the reality isn’t so simple. What does treating someone like a male boss actually mean?
Sue Chen shares an experience she had with a man she hired, a sales manager she described as a “smooth talker.” He was always ready with a joke or pleasantry, but whenever she had to give him critical feedback, as a boss should, he reacted very badly. “Finally I told him ‘I’m your boss — don’t treat me like a date,’” Chen says. “He was completely taken aback. That was the only way he knew to be around women.”
Most male employees probably realize that flirting with their female boss isn’t a great idea. But research shows that Chen’s sales manager isn’t as alone as you might think. Men are more likely to see other men as competitors in the office hierarchy, while they see women more as sisters, friends or lovers. Sometimes, that translates into solid office friendships; other times, it can come off as a lack of respect.
This dynamic can be especially difficult when it comes time for the hardest part of a boss’s day: giving negative feedback to your employees. Many female CEOs I talked to said their male employees often took their criticisms more personally than female employees did.
“Over the years, we’ve had several men crash and burn,” says Chen. “In the beginning, it’s always great. But the first time I have to change my tone, it’s much more jarring coming from me than coming from a man.”
The culprit here is probably deeply ingrained, but unconscious, gender biases. One 2015 study found that men act more assertively when managed by a female boss to counteract the perceived threat to their masculinity. Men can counter this tendency by thinking before they speak in stressful moments with their female boss — and remembering that her opinions deserve respect.
But maybe the best, and simplest, advice for men being managed by women is to just stay quiet and listen. Men, even subordinate ones, interrupt women as much as three times more often than they interrupt other men. A recent study published in The Harvard Business Review showed this as a major concern for even for women at the executive level. So if treating a female boss exactly like a male boss isn’t in the cards, maybe simply thinking twice before talking over her in a meeting will be a good first step.
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