Women Leading Women: Tips for Success

Women’s friendship rules tend to be egalitarian and relational, while men’s expectations are more transactional and hierarchical.

Women now hold 40 percent of all manager positions in major corporations as leaders of both women and men. Although both my male and female executive-coaching clients tell me they face particular challenges with leading women, my female clients seem to experience an extra set of challenges. They report often finding it more difficult than their male peers to motivate female staff.

Recently, a female client who is a senior-level manager told me she was very frustrated with a mature and experienced woman she had hired expecting her to be a self-motivated high performer. Six months later, she was disappointed in this employee’s productivity. When she tried to give this employee feedback about her productivity, she felt disrespected by the employee’s defensive and dismissive response. My client said, “She would never treat me this way if I were a man.”

In fact, my research confirms that female staff often expect different kinds of leadership behaviors from male and female managers. These gender-based expectations reflect something I call women’s friendship rules that we develop early in life and carry with us, largely unconsciously, into the workplace. Women and men have different relational expectations because of the differences in our socialization. Women’s friendship rules tend to be egalitarian and relational, while men’s expectations—reflected in most workplace cultures as “the right way to be”—are more transactional and hierarchical.

Drs. Pat Heim and Susan Murphy describe a key aspect of women’s friendship rules as the Power Dead-Even Rule: “For a positive relationship to be possible between two women, the self-esteem and power of one must be, in the perception of each woman, similar in weight to the self-esteem and power of the other.” This balance is not easy to accomplish when a real power difference exists and one woman is the boss of the other, but there are ways to be an effective leader of other women and to maintain your authority as the leader. I will use the case described earlier to offer some steps you can take:

  1. Unhook from taking responses personally. My client got hooked on feeling that her employee was not respecting her as the boss. Because she took the responses personally, she could not step back from the situation to strategize objectively. Her focus was on her hurt and anger over feeling disrespected. The only solution she could envision was to fire the employee.
  2. Determine what is really important. Once my client was able to gain some perspective through our coaching work, she realized that she actually did not want to fire an employee who had the skills and experience she needed to grow her business. When my client recognized that growing her business was her objective, she achieved clarity about the outcomes she wanted from this employee.
  3. Listen and share. Next, my client sat down with her employee to listen and share. She asked the employee to talk about what would better motivate her, what was working for her in the current situation, and what wasn’t. In turn, my client shared her expectations for higher productivity, what wasn’t working for her, and what was. My client learned that her employee needed a more flexible schedule than had been arranged, but she also recognized that productivity was a more important issue for her than for her employee. She was able to agree to some changes in schedule that her employee asked for and to make her own expectations for productivity and accountability clear. She and her employee reached an agreement about how they would move forward with schedule changes, as well as productivity measures. My client is hopeful that this relationship will work out, and she feels respected.
  4. Be relational. Show interest in your female employee as a person, and share some appropriate information about your personal life with her. My client realized as she reflected on her problem employee that she knew nothing about this employee’s life or interests outside of work because she had never asked. She also realized that she had not shared anything about herself. Many people, women and men, prefer leaders who are personable. My own research indicates that women generally expect more of a relationship with female bosses than male bosses. A woman leader who takes the time to share and show interest in female employees can see big payoffs in productivity and loyalty.

Many more women than men find it difficult to lead other women. We may need to adjust our leadership style to meet the different expectations of women and men who work for us. Our challenge is to use the leadership style that works best for those we are leading.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D., president of Anne Litwin & Associates, has been an organizational development consultant, trainer, and executive coach for more than 30 years. She consults with a variety of Fortune 100 and 500 companies around the world and helps organizations increase productivity and attract and retain talent. She is the author of New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. Visit www.annelitwin.com for more information.

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