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Lead Your Team Leadership

Take Charge: How Women Can Raise Their Leadership Stock

Take Charge: How Women Can Raise Their Leadership Stock
Credit: Baranq/Shutterstock

Women who want to be seen as better leaders in the workplace, need to be more assertive when working with others, new research finds.

When working in groups, women get more credit for their leadership than men do when exhibiting assertive and take-charge behaviors, according to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The natural inclination of the male-dominated teams in the study was to give men more credit for their leadership abilities. However, women were able to overcome those predispositions by being more forceful when organizing the team's work, suggesting creative ways to tackle problems and going outside the team for new resources. When they were more assertive with these tasks, they got more credit for leadership than men who acted similarly.

In the study, researchers highlight Facebook's Chief Operation Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who once expressed regret that women hold themselves back by lacking self-confidence and pulling back when they should be leaning in.

"Women not only gain by leaning in but gain disproportionately compared to male colleagues," Klodiana Lanaj, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at the University of Florida, said in a statement. "In effect, they enjoy a bonus for leaning in."

The researchers attribute the results to the notion that historically women have been associated with more "communal traits," like supportiveness and congeniality, while men have been the ones to show more of a take-charge attitude. When women display the traits, known as agentic behaviors, that have long been associated with men, they make a stronger impression on their teammates. [The Strategy That Makes Women Better Leaders ]

When men acted outside of their typical norms, however, they did not experience the same boost in how they were perceived as a leader.

"While research has shown communal traits to benefit men in work situations, the participants in our study did not associate them with leadership, even while they judged them vital to group functioning," Lanaj said. "Helpful though they may be, social skills apparently don't get individuals of either gender thought of as leaders."

The study was based on surveys of 181 MBA candidates who were working on team projects at a large research university. One survey was conducted before the start of the school year and dealt with general personality. A second was conducted six weeks into the year and asked the students, 72 percent of whom were men, to rate their teammates on three types of leadership behaviors long identified as contributing to team performance: task behaviors, boundary-spanning behaviors and social behaviors. The first two are classified as the more assertive, take-charge behaviors, while the third is considered communal.

A final survey was done one month later. It probed team members' leadership emergence, by eliciting responses to statements such as "assumes leadership in the team," "leads the conversation in the team" and "influences team goals and decisions." It also explored leadership effectiveness with statements such as "is a very good leader," "knows how to organize and coordinate people," and "knows how to get people motivated."

The researchers discovered that male team members were found to be more likely than female teammates to engage in task behaviors and were rated significantly higher in leadership emergence. Despite that, men scored no higher than their female teammates in leadership effectiveness.

Researchers discovered that at the same time, female team members who did engage in either task behaviors or boundary-spanning behaviors were rated significantly higher in leadership emergence than male teammates.

"Women who engage in team-relevant agentic behaviors will over-emerge as leaders relative to men enacting the exact same behaviors, due to…expectancy violation," the study's authors wrote.

While the authors concede that the advantage enjoyed by women who exhibit assertive behavior is not the definitive solution to women’s under-representation in corporate management, it is a way for them to better emerge as leaders.

Lanaj said that based on previous research it's fairly clear that women are penalized more than men for asserting themselves, especially when self-assertion is on behalf of their individual self-interest.

"What our study adds to the mix is the insight that, when women’s assertive or take-charge initiatives are in the service of a team, they not only are accepted but make a greater impression than similar endeavors by men," Lanaj said. "That may not be commensurate with the resentment we encounter from self-promotion, but it strikes me as significantly enhancing prospects for greater female organizational leadership."

The study was co-authored by John Hollenbeck, a professor of management at Michigan State University.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.