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September 27, 2010

Weird

I wonder: does this phenomenon explain (even partially) the much touted rise in female political candidates?

A new study explores a phenomenon called the "glass cliff," in which female leadership becomes more desirable during times of uncertainty. Previous research has found that when women attain leadership positions, they are more likely to be asked to take over organizations in crisis.

Researchers gave test groups information about fictitious companies, some of which were in crises. They found that women were more likely to be selected than men if the company was struggling. The reason seemed to be that stereotypically female characteristics were suddenly valued when everything went to pot: interpersonal qualities such as being "intuitive" or "aware of the feelings of others."

I wonder whether this has anything to do with women being more risk averse than men? Maybe during times of uncertainty, people prefer a leader who isn't going to rock the boat or try anything radical but when things are going well, they are more likely to put risk takers in charge?

What do you think?

Posted by Cassandra at September 27, 2010 03:00 PM

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Maybe it's that none of the guys wants to take the risks. They've figured out that none of their schemes is working, so let her try her feminine charms. I hate to even think that, but if she claws the company ship off the breakers, they can throw her overboard and go back to business as usual; if she doesn't, it wasn't their fault and back to business as usual.

Posted by: htom at September 27, 2010 03:55 PM

Either that, or the aggressive risk takers have moved on to a company with more ready capital!

Posted by: Grim at September 27, 2010 04:06 PM

Umm, might this be why Sarah Palin has gained so much influence over the GOP?

Of course the article was authored by a woman....

More seriously, a correction to the WSJ's accidentally misleading summary: looking at the abstract in the BJSP issue carrying it, the more accurate emphasis is that when companies are in crisis, then existing women leaders are more likely to be selected to lead them, rather than the apparently implied situation that women are more likely to be created leaders and then selected for crisis leadership. What seems to be at work here, as the rest of the WSJ summary describes, is that male attributes work best in times of success (sort of a coarse feed the hot hand), but that in times of crisis (which are not the opposite of times of success), female attributes may be perceived as more suited, or the male attributes may be perceived as less suited. Cheap bas*d that I am, I didn't spring the bucks for the article, so I have no idea of the methodology employed, nor have I any idea of the attributes or their definitions ascribed. The abstract does, as does the author's own summary at ingentaconnect, explicitly rule out that women are viewed as more suited to crisis management; the data are claimed to imply that simply that men are viewed as less suited.

I don't know that women are any less risk averse than men. I've commented before on the mix of biology, socialization, and expectation, and the currently unknown level of relative influence of these on men and women, and so, by extension, male and female risk attitudes. I do suggest that people of either gender who have risen to the level where they can seriously be considered for crisis management of a large organization (or a desperate army in Patton's terms) have overcome to a large degree their socialization histories, leaving primarily biology and expectations informing their behaviors.

In my time in the military, also, I have known a number of women who were natural risk takers, and who in, shall we say, problem times, got their fangs out just as slaveringly as any male, and more so than others (wimps coming in all sizes and genders).

I certainly don't agree that in times of crisis (different from times of uncertainty), that we need, necessarily someone less likely to rock the boat. That boat-rocking often is necessary to settling the crisis. That boat-rocking also needs more consensus-building, often, than a "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude, as the crisis will require more sustained corrective action than just charging through a (hopefully) thinly scattered mine field. And women are, by stereotype, better at consensus building. But, again, Bruckmuller's study implied a selection against men, not for women, when the leadership history running up to the crisis was male--and the preference disappeared (and it was not reversed) when the leadership history running up to the crisis was female.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 27, 2010 04:12 PM

..again, Bruckmuller's study implied a selection against men, not for women, when the leadership history running up to the crisis was male--and the preference disappeared (and it was not reversed) when the leadership history running up to the crisis was female.

That was what made me think of risk aversion.

I do think that - broadly speaking - women are more risk averse than men. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, either.

There are times and careers when willingness to take risks is hugely important, and there are other times and careers where risk taking is a positive liability.

I've noticed that on a personal level (i.e., when it only affects me) I am not very risk averse. But when my actions affect others or I'm representing an employer, I behave more cautiously.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 27, 2010 04:25 PM

I wonder if the military as a career doesn't select for women who are less risk averse? Investment banking may do the same.

Anyway, interesting!

Posted by: Cassandra at September 27, 2010 04:26 PM

I thought this study was fascinating in light of another meme I've seen recently: pundits contrasting Obama's detached style with that of Bush I (and Clinton, who was better at empathizing and feeling people's pain).

Posted by: Cassandra at September 27, 2010 04:45 PM

I retired from a Fortune 50 company. When a company is doing well, the leadership has to answer to nobody (as a preactical matter). If you're making money, everybody is happy. So what happens when a crisis hits? -- now the leadership has to answer to boards of directors, bankruptcy trustees, lender committees, every stakeholder and his aunt. That's a whole new skill set.

I have found women in business to be very good (read: better than me) at quickly discerning and adding up the motives and intentions of various interested and competing players. They are surely better at building consensus than most guys. When a company leader is on a short leash, that's critical.

Posted by: Ron Weiss at September 27, 2010 04:45 PM

That's a really interesting insight (one I would never have thought of)!

Posted by: Cassandra at September 27, 2010 05:02 PM

The article doesn't quantify "more likely"...is it 17% vs 19%, or 10% vs 60%?...nor does it quantify "less likely" when it asserts that leaders during a crisis are less likely to be chosen for ongoing leadership positions. (Off-topic, but it is ridiculous that publicly-funded nonclassified research is not required to be available for free on the Internet)

The example of female leadership during a crisis that comes to mind is Anne Mulcahy, who took over Xerox when its survival was in serious doubt (and when no one else wanted the job.) I have two short posts about Mulcahy, but the spam filter won't let me link them.

Posted by: david foster at September 27, 2010 05:08 PM

Maybe if I try the Mulcahy links one at a time...here's the first one:

A turnaround story

Posted by: david foster at September 27, 2010 05:10 PM

David:

I have a script that places any comment with more than one link into moderation. 95% of the time, there's just a delay until I can get around to approving it, but if you ever want to post lots of links and don't see me approve it within a reasonable amount of time, just email me :)

Posted by: Cassandra at September 27, 2010 05:12 PM

Interesting question. During the course of the Engineer's post military employment, he would talk things over with me. He did that on active duty, but not as freely, as was appropriate. Anyway, I always asked him why he asked me. I am not a member of the military, or degreed. He said 'Because you have excellent insight.'


Posted by: Cricket at September 27, 2010 05:19 PM

There are times and careers when willingness to take risks is hugely important, and there are other times and careers where risk taking is a positive liability.

I don't entirely agree. I think risk-taking needs to be a part of every endeavor--that's how success is gained, however one might define success. The liability lies in taking risks carelessly, without assessing the actual risks and measuring those against the likely gains. I used to bulldog freight trains from motorcycles in college--that was a fairly suboptimally assessed set of risks. I'm a stock investor, also, another set of risks, but I've more carefully assessed those.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 27, 2010 05:31 PM

Dietrich Doerner, a professor who lives in Germany, studies decision-making and has written a very interesting book called The Logic of Failure, which is highly relevant to crisis management.

In one simulation experiment, subjects play the role of a fire chief fighting simulated forest fires, and must decide how much autonomy to give to their "units" versus how much to control everything centrally. The ones who fail are those who apply rigid, context-insensitive rules...such as "always keep the units widely deployed" or "always keep the units concentrated" rather than making these decisions flexibly. He identifies "methodism" (a term borrowed from Clausewitz) which he defines as "the unthinking application of a sequence of actions we have once learned," as a key threat to effective decision-making. Similar results are obtained in another simulation, in which the subject is put in charge of making production decisions in a clothing factory. In this case, the subjects are asked to think out loud as they develop their strategies. The unsuccessful ones tend to use unqualified expressions: constantly, every time, without exception, absolutely, etc...while the successful "factory managers" tend toward qualified expressions: now and then, in general, specifically, perhaps.

For anyone who's interested, there's a link to a review of the book on my left sidebar.

Posted by: david foster at September 27, 2010 05:31 PM

(Off-topic, but it is ridiculous that publicly-funded nonclassified research is not required to be available for free on the Internet)

The fee was charged by the publisher, BJSP in this case. I have no idea what costs are being covered by the journal's fee, but professional journals of this type don't enjoy the same economies of scale as do, say, Ladies' Home Journal. It's been my experience, though, that the journals provide the authors with a potful of print copies, and the authors freely distribute these for the asking. Another source of journal cost-coverage is from subscription fees: $100/yr for non Society members, and $400 for libraries and the like in the case of BJSP.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 27, 2010 05:37 PM

I always asked him why he asked me. I am not a member of the military, or degreed. He said 'Because you have excellent insight.'

You betch'm. My wife is very good at what she does, and I'm very good at what I do, and the two are unrelated to each other. However, we talk over our respective business, where possible: aside from the insights available, which she has in spades, just talking to a rational, intelligent person who has no skin in that game often is very useful to clarifying the thinking of the one of us who does have that skin.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 27, 2010 05:47 PM

Eric...understand that these fees are charged by the publishers. My argument is that these academic journals *do not need to exist* in the age of the web; that whatever refereeing, editing, and peer reviewing needs to be done can be done by the scholars in the field (as most of it is anyhow), and that academic publishing in the old sense is now more of an inhibitor to than an enabler of the free exchange of ideas.

Posted by: david foster at September 27, 2010 05:57 PM

The problem is NOT the feminization of of the schools (though I believe that to be true) but that children of both genders are being inadequately parented. Our materialistic, self-centered society does not protect and nurture families. Everything from the Interstate Highway System to home video games tend to make it easier for families to NOT fulfill their God-given responsibility to raise and nurture their children into responsible adulthood. Add in our drug-and-alcohol addled society and the nuclear family is most likely to explode with predictable results. This topic is but a symptom of the larger problem.



There are no easy answers to this, the destruction of the 2-parent family. This has been a long-term trend that accelerated in the 1960's. Feminism has some of the blame for this, of course. But it really boils down to the failure of one generation to pass its values to its children. Our grandparents (the Great Generation) married young, had lots of children, and stayed together through all the travails of life, and finally died after 50 or 60 (or 75!) years of marriage. Most of our children, and our grandchildren (if we have any), will probably NEVER experience among their personal circle, a marriage that lasts even 30 years. I used to think that 30 years was a long time. I don't any more.



As Americans, we have been committing demographic suicide for the last 50 years or so. We have fewer, or no children. If we have children, we are waiting longer before starting a family. And though we have fewer children and smaller families, we are losing the collective ability to parent them well.



America suffers from crass materialism, and this has destroyed our families. The only antidote to materialism is spiritual renewal. But that is another topic for another day.

Posted by: geekasaurus at September 27, 2010 06:10 PM

Several years ago, I had a product line that was in trouble, with some pretty serious financial implications, and picked a woman who had been with the company a while (though she was still pretty young) for the job of fixing it...included responsibilities spanning engineering, sales, marketing, and manufacturing for that product. She was VERY reluctant to take the job; partly I think she was suspicious of the new management team of which I was a part and was afraid she was being set up...she was persuaded, though, and did a good job.

On the broader topic, Cass, when you say "Maybe during times of uncertainty, people prefer a leader who isn't going to rock the boat or try anything radical but when things are going well, they are more likely to put risk takers in charge?"...I think it's often just the opposite. Isn't there a saying in the military that the peacetime generals often need to be replaced when the shooting starts?

Posted by: david foster at September 27, 2010 06:25 PM

Ah. While he was guarded in his requests for insight while on active duty (he knows I am one of those people that are totally judgmental and while I would be discreet, nonetheless, indiscretion on his part was not an option), there was a time or two where he asked me what I would do. It was nothing bad, but what truly touched me was that he thought my opinion was valuable.

Not rubbing shoulders yet in a man's world, I have learned a couple of things about being a sounding board versus a leader; I am not the one who is taking the risk.

Women who have leadership potential are not defeminized; on the contrary, to be a parent is to be a leader. It is that you are dealing with strangers, and women, I think, while being connected with their emotions and can guage feeling or thought processes, like a certain level of cordiality in working through problems and tense situations.

Posted by: Cricket at September 27, 2010 07:04 PM

Being the cynic I am, I was thinking along the lines that the men set the women up when things are going bad so that they will have a scapegoat if the company crashes completely.

Posted by: Smart Grunt at September 27, 2010 08:37 PM

Just a "SWAG", but in uncertain times...perhaps people look for a "Mommy" figure.

Posted by: camojack at September 28, 2010 12:38 AM

I'd theorize that it has to do with what sort of women and what sort of men make it to leadership roles, especially higher leadership.

Generally, guys are either hellfires or bulls-- they get there by sheer force of will, one way or another-- while the women get to the leadership roles by interpersonal relationships-- picture it like climbing a tree. There's good and bad aspects of both forms, but I can see how "get there fast and strong" would be best in good times and "get there in one piece" would be better in bad.

All ignoring the "give them enough rope to make a noose" angle, which works just as well on men as it does on women....

Posted by: Foxfier at September 28, 2010 01:57 AM

Cass writes: "I do think that - broadly speaking - women are more risk averse than men. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, either." I agree with the generalization, but I'm not sure it applies here. Women who have achieved a high level of success in business are a pretty elite, and self-selected, group. You usually don't reach that level in the business world by being risk averse.

As for a having a don't-rock-the-boat leader in times of crisis: that depends on what the source of the crisis is. If it's due to external events, then I agree, a steady hand at the till is what you need. But if it's due to internal failures, then a boat-rocker might be called for.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at September 28, 2010 02:09 PM

Researchers gave test groups information about fictitious companies, some of which were in crises. They found that women were more likely to be selected than men if the company was struggling. The reason seemed to be that stereotypically female characteristics were suddenly valued when everything went to pot: interpersonal qualities such as being "intuitive" or "aware of the feelings of others."

Where are the feminists decrying this as sexist behavior? After all, men and women have no differences, right? NONE AT ALL!!! STOP SAYING THEY DO, YOU NEANDERTHALS!!! /rolleyes

Posted by: MikeD at September 30, 2010 09:39 AM

...stereotypically female characteristics were suddenly valued when everything went to pot: interpersonal qualities such as being "intuitive" or "aware of the feelings of others."

So, they're saying Barry Manilow has a shot in 2014?

Posted by: BillT at September 30, 2010 09:57 AM

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