Female Leaders Have a “Trust Advantage” in Crises

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand (AP Photo)

Recent research has shown that trust established by female leaders results in better crisis resolution.

This research reflects other recent research that shows that women are better leaders for organizations.

That’s according to a paper published by researchers at Lehigh University and Queen’s University published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly. Their research is the first to examine why and when a female leadership trust advantage emerges for leaders during organizational crises.

Authors on the paper, “A Female Leadership Trust Advantage in Times of Crisis: Under What Conditions?” include Corinne Post, professor of management at Lehigh University ; Iona Latu, lecturer in experimental social psychology at Queen’s University Belfast; and Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management at Lehigh University.

“People trust female leaders more than male leaders in times of crisis, but only under specific conditions,” said co-author Post. “We showed that when a crisis hits an organization, people trust leaders who behave in relational ways, and especially so when the leaders are women and when there is a predictable path out of the crisis.”

The authors found that leaders’ “relational behaviors” serve to strengthen and, on average, are adopted more by women than men. The researchers behaviors which alleviated feelings of threat during a crisis by anticipating and managing the emotions of others; removing or altering a problem to reduce emotional impact; directing attention to something more pleasant; reappraising a situation as more positive; and modulating or suppressing one’s emotional response.

The researchers gave examples such as a product safety concern, consumer data breach, oil spill, corruption allegation or widespread harassment.

“Crises are fraught with relational issues, which, unless handled properly, threaten not only organizational performance but also the allocation of organizational resources and even organizational survival,” the researchers argue, and added “Organizational crises, therefore, require a great deal of relational and emotional work to build or restore trust among those affected and may influence such trusting behaviors as provision of resources to the organization,” including economic resources and investment in the firm, as well as inspiring employee cooperation.”

“We found that this female leadership trust advantage was not just attitudinal, but that — when the consequences of the crisis were foreseeable — people were actually ready to invest much more in the firms led by relational women,” Post said. “Our finding also suggests that, in an organizational crisis, female (relative to male) leaders may generate more goodwill and resources for their organization by using relational behaviors when the crisis fallout is predictable, but may not benefit from the same advantage in crises with uncertain consequences.”

The findings have important implications for leadership and gender research, as well as business professionals. “Identifying what crisis management behaviors enhance trust in female leaders, and under what conditions such trust is enhanced may, for example, help to mitigate the documented higher risk for women (compared to men) of being replaced during drawn-out crises,” the researchers concluded.

Kellie A. McElhaney and Sanaz Mobasseri of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkley, produced a report, “Women Create a Sustainable Future.” They concluded “companies that explicitly place value on gender diversity perform better in general, and perform better than their peers on the multiple dimensions of corporate sustainability.”

A 2012 Dow Jones study found that business startups are more likely to succeed if they had women on their executive team. And according to the Center for Women’s Business Research, although women own about 40% of the private businesses in the U.S., women make up less than 10% of venture-backed start-ups.

According to a separate study by Babson College and the London School of Economics, women led startups had fewer failures compared to men in moving from early to growth–stage companies.

Catalyst, the U.S. non-profit company, published a study which found a 26% difference in return on invested capital (ROIC) between the top-quartile companies with 19–44% women board representation and the bottom quartile companies with zero women directors.

When McKinsey & Co. researchers asked business executives globally what they believe the most important leadership attributes are for success today, each of the top four — intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision-making and setting expectations/rewards — were more commonly found among women leaders. McKinsey also reported in its Organizational Health Index(OHI) companies with three or more women in top positions scored higher than their peers.

A Pew Center Global Attitudes study found that 75% of respondents in the U.S. and 80% in Canada believe that women make equally good political leaders. The percentage was even higher in parts of Asia, South America and Europe, according to the study. Another Pew Center study, the Social and Demographic Survey, found women leaders possessed more leadership traits of honesty, intelligence, compassion and creativity than men, whereas men scored higher only in decisiveness.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, authors of The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Activate, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, argue that in today’s complex demanding world of organizations, women may possess superior leadership capabilities compared to men.

Zenger and Folkman came to that conclusion based on 30 years of research on what constitutes overall leadership effectiveness that comes from 360 evaluations of a leader’s peers, bosses and direct reports and a 2011 (updated in 2019)(survey of over 7,000 leaders from some of the most successful and progressive organizations. They concluded “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider the gap grows.”

Zenger and Folkman said: “at all levels, women were rated higher in fully 12 or the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership. And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.” The authors found men outscored women significantly on only one management competency — the ability to develop a strategic perspective. In fact, at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows, Zenger and Folkman report.

Given recent research and the pressing serious problems facing us today in terms of the decline of democracy, pandemics, and environmental degradation, it would be wise for us to turn to women leaders.

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others