“The Woman Question:” Leadership Research and the Breakdown of Communication

The Harvard Business Review reports that women leaders’ success only seems to come with unpopularity. They followed up on a recent interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and the research she cites in her book Lean In indicating “that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

But Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman (who also published their rather vague results in Forbes) used 360 assessments to test this idea, and found that both men and women experience a dip in popularity when they first become successful, but women recover a little better than men in the end, recovering most of their lost ground and returning to their un/popular norm.  They report:

“While, certainly, some individual women may find themselves disliked as they move up the organization, our aggregate data show the opposite is more common — that male leaders are perceived more negatively as they rise, whereas women generally maintain their popularity throughout their entire careers.”

Using questions from the 360 assessment (for example: “Do you stay in touch with issues and concerns of individuals in the work group?” and “How well do you balance getting results with a concern for others’ needs?”), they created a “likeability index.” They don’t indicate the size of their sample or the percentages of men and women they included in their data, so it’s hard to tell how conclusive their results are, but it’s interesting that they followed up. (Read more here.)

Leadership and Likeability

Sandberg’s point in this interview is less about being liked, or perceived well, than it is about being a minority and being perceived as a threat. In the interview, her first comment is about the way the news and commentators are talking about the increasing number of women in congress, as if equality has been achieved — when the proportions of women to men is still 20% to 80%.

It’s not about some generic idea of likeability — and approaching it that way begs the feminist question Sandberg raises so articulately in Lean In. Sandberg’s research looks at the stories we tell about “good” women and leadership: cultural norms, educational discrimination, and the small percentage of women in higher management positions. sandberg-like-300x223

Her statistical, anecdotal and interdisciplinary research is the kind of leadership research that business leadership consultants like Zenger and Folkman can’t disprove with a 360 assessment, because their tool measures a different problem.

And that’s the challenge of leadership research. All of us have good reason to believe what we believe about leadership — but the reasons and the way we develop our conclusions often comes from different kinds of research, different experiences and different business contexts.

So a researcher who uses 360 to evaluate people wants to validate his research tool as much as he wants to get clear results. (The same can be said for any other research tool, including my focus on story and Sandberg’s cultural contextualization.)  That’s the double edged sword we take up with any methodology, and the reason that leadership research often seems so limited to many who want to apply solutions.

Meeting that challenge means having a meaningful dialogue between methods of research, not just applying a different ruler to answer a hard question.

Hey, 360 assessment is a really likeable model for measuring the constantly changing pool of opinions about a person or an organization. I’m very glad these researchers are willing to explore, from a different assessment method. As far as I can tell, their research is legitimate and well-intentioned. I’m using them as an example, but their research isn’t the issue.

Their condensed profile on HBR made me think about the importance of communicating beyond results and seeing beyond the question into our ways of asking and answering. It’s not enough to decisively answer Sandberg’s complicated question, because it doesn’t address cultural norms and may even include unexamined cultural assumptions in its framing of questions and identity. Yet they state their conclusion as if it’s a done deal, and we can reassure all our girl children that people will like them – eventually – if they step out of the female behavior box and become successful.

Can we talk? There may be method to our leadership madness, but we need to acknowledge that by speaking different languages, we’re actually asking different questions.

Our leadership research has to be a dialogue, not a monologue! Let’s speak not just in conclusions, but in the method used to arrive at them. We want to communicate better – that’s good leadership. Let’s “lean in” more effectively, and learn to play better with each others research strategies, so our results become more meaningful.

One comment

  1. […] interpret Sandberg’s “lean-in” idea as being assertive at work, pushing forward despite barriers. Their conclusion is that women have a […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: