A large number of studies have shown that there is a contradiction that female leaders are more likely to encounter than male leaders.
That is: they must be warm and friendly on the one hand (the traditional expectations of women in society), and on the other hand they must be capable and tough (social traditional expectations of men and leaders).
The problem is that people often see these qualities as opposites, making women leaders dilemma. So, how do successful women adapt to this contradiction?
Regarding the contradictions faced by female leaders, HP’s former CEO Carly Fiorina has such description: “Since I joined HP to the many years after I left, When people in Silicon Valley were talking about me in the chat room, they either call me ‘dumb dora’ or ‘shrew’. For them, I am either too weak or too tough and too conceited.”
To resolve this dilemma, society’s expectations of women’s identity and leadership capabilities must be changed. But before that, female executives must still adapt to these contradictions.
So, how do successful women do this in their daily work? To find out the trick, we conducted in-depth interviews with 64 senior women leaders from 51 organizations in the United States.
They work in a variety of industries, and they are all vice presidents and above, with CEOs, general managers, and senior executives of various functions.
We found that these women face four kinds of contradictions, and all of them stem from the necessity of “be tough and friendly.” We also found out five strategies they used to deal with these contradictions.
Four contradictions faced by female leaders
Contradiction 1: they must be strict and considerate.
The female executives who participated in the study told us that on the one hand, they must strictly demand others, and on the other hand, they must also care about them.
For example, Norma (all names are pseudonyms), the head of human resources at a financial services company, recalled a project she was in charge of. Her perseverance on this project has made the project a success, but it has also caused her to receive some negative feedback.
She said: “I still remember that although everyone had doubts about the project I designed, I knew from my heart and instinct that it would be successful. Later, under my continuous drive, the project was really successful.
But some people criticized me for being aggressive. If I were a man, I wonder if the feedback I would get would be the same.”
Contradiction 2: It is necessary to have authority and participate in work.
The second contradiction faced by female leaders is that they must not only promote their abilities, but also recognize their weaknesses and require others to cooperate with them.
On the one hand, female leaders have long learned to show a posture of authority, so they are “tough”, “speaking loudly”, and “acting decisively”; if they don’t, others may find them unreliable, especially when the new business just started.
But on the other hand, in order to avoid being regarded as arrogant by others, female leaders will immediately acknowledge their weaknesses and are willing to cooperate with others.
For example, Claire, the general manager of a manufacturer, said: “I found out before that I was used to giving orders, but now I have to change this habit. As the saying goes, haste is not enough.
I may have to slow down before giving orders. I have to move everyone and make sure everyone’s mindset remains the same.”
Contradiction 3: We must advocate our own goals and serve others at the same time.
The third contradiction is that female leaders must take into account the needs and goals of themselves and others. Focusing too much on one party can cause a lot of trouble.
For example: Cameron, the director of strategy at an accounting firm, told us that she would share her knowledge with others, but some people didn’t know how to reward it, which made her feel that she was being used. In contrast, Meredi, the general manager of a healthcare service company, once negotiated with internal stakeholders in order to advance her goals, and the results made people feel that she was too strong. For this reason, she almost lost her position in the leadership team.
Contradiction 4: It is necessary to keep distance while being approachable.
Some participants said that on one hand, they want others to regard themselves as leaders rather than as colleagues or team members, but on the other hand they want to establish close relationships with them.
In order to gain the respect of others, female leaders will keep a distance from others in order to maintain a kind of “leadership atmosphere” that lacks human touch.
Although they did this to act “professional,” “objective,” and “serious”, they also noticed that this would leave people with the impression of “tough,” “selfish,” and “indifferent.” As a result, it becomes difficult for them to gain the trust and promise of others.
In order to make up for this, many female leaders will deliberately convey their cordial and humane side to everyone, making people feel that they are “approachable”, “enthusiastic”, “social”, “kind”, “friendly”, “easy-going”, “Easy to communicate”.
Dorn, the CEO of a non-profit organization, explained that her approach is very simple, which is to rely on clothing: “I usually dress slightly more formal than employees, but on Fridays, I will dress very casually.
Show that I am not a tough and inaccessible person. Generally speaking, we will work while having fun, but I will also try to keep a little distance, because I want people to know that I will treat people fairly, never eccentric.”
Solution to those contradiction
Our research shows that in order to successfully adapt to these contradictions, female leaders must first be aware of the existence of contradictions: when they encounter the core conflict of “both friendly and tough”, they must sort out the various contradictions contained in it.
After doing this, they can formulate a set of strategies to deal with contradictions for themselves, thereby improving their efficiency and resilience. We have identified five strategies:
Adapt to the situation
Most female leaders tell us that they will show friendly or tough attitude towards people depending on the situation and the group. For example: Melissa, the general manager of a manufacturer, said that in order to be approachable while keeping her distance, she would “deliberately not sit at the table in certain occasions.
Whether I sit at the table or not depends on the meeting. The nature and environment. At some times, I will tell you by action that I am just a member of the team today; at other times, I will adopt a slightly different attitude to clearly show that I am the decision maker.”
Takes a progressive approach
Another strategy is to “try peaceful means before resorting to force”: to treat people kindly at first(or care about each other, cooperate with each other), and then to be tough (or become strict and give orders).
You must first establish a relationship with people that can trust and communicate with each other; when you need to challenge the status quo or achieve your goals, you can use stronger behaviors or words.
For example, Marilyn, the general manager of a financial services company, has such a philosophy: When working with others, she will “establish a good daily relationship with everyone, because in such a relationship, people will be willing to help you succeed. This way.
When you advocate for a project, people generally try their best to help you complete the project.”
Similarly, Ruth, the new product development director of a manufacturer, said that she once insisted on removing a project, but this project was regarded as a “baby” by some colleagues.
However, after the termination of the project, people did not resent her for it, because she “spent a lot of time to establish a strong partnership” from the beginning.
She actually helped herself by doing this: in the context of such a relationship, she later told the project team members: “Politics can be overcome…I don’t want you to be ugly, I really do this to improve business performance. “
Looking for a win-win situation
Many women interviewed said that they would look for opportunities to do both soft and hard—for some leaders, this is a “win-win” strategy. Dorothy, the general manager of a health care service company, has such a mentality: “The most important thing is that when you try to influence someone, you have to understand the other person’s values, characteristics, and goals. So, I will try to understand first. Your own goals, and then see if there is any consistency in each other’s goals.”
Be strict with the task requirements and be gentle to people
Female leaders who use this strategy will treat people well while insisting on strict requirements for tasks.
State legislator Sally shared her experience: “One thing I learned is that even if I had a heated argument with someone on a certain issue, we were still friends after we walked out of the meeting room. Locally realize that separating people from tasks is a very important thing.”
Dennis, the director of strategy at a financial institution, also shared an example: Once, a colleague put forward an unsatisfactory proposal, so she used euphemisms to convey a strong message.
She told us: “What I said is enough to tell the other party:’This proposal is very interesting, but can we do more research? I don’t know what other organizations will think about this proposal?’ You can see from this example. , You don’t have to say, “Listen, I think this proposal is really absurd.
We will not accept this kind of hurtful words. You can also express dissent. Questioning leadership style makes me more efficient.”
Think from a different perspective
We found that female leaders also try to look at the contradiction of “be friendly and tough” from a different perspective.
They will try to associate “friendliness” with “toughness” and look at both performances in a more positive way-that is, performances that were considered weaknesses in the past have now become strengths in their eyes.
For example, female leaders will regard weakness as a reflection of the existence of self-confidence-they act weak, representing that they have sufficient sense of security, and can show their flaws and weaknesses without fear.
Shannon, the president of a manufacturer, explained: “I can confidently say things like ‘I don’t know, but I want to know the answer’ or ‘I don’t know, but I know I can find the answer.’”
Another approach is to treat some confident and seemingly threatening actions as a kind of care. Take Lorraine, Jordan, and Norma as examples: they view giving negative feedback and raising objections as ways to help others.
As leaders, women must not only face conflicting expectations, but also overcome more obstacles. In the long run, to alleviate these problems, organizations and society must make systematic changes.
However, as long as these contradictions continue to exist, female executives must find ways to deal with them.