What Traits Do Employees Look for in Leaders?

Stereotypical male traits such as assertiveness and competitiveness are 'must-haves', says research

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Employees see stereotypically male characteristics like assertiveness and competitiveness as “must-haves” in a leadership role, while feminine leadership traits such as kindness and sensitivity towards others as non-essential or just “nice to have”.

 These were the major findings of a new study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Power of Position

The researchers of the research paper, "Unnecessary Frills: Communality as a Nice (But Expendable) Trait in Leaders”, Andrea C. Vial, from Yale University’s psychology department, and Jaime L. Napier, from the psychology department at the New York University Abu Dhabi, say such preferences could offer an insight into why there are fewer women when it comes to positions of power. Estimates say only 5 per cent of Fortune 500 chief executive officers are women, and in S&P 500 companies, women account for 16.5 per cent of top executives excluding CEOs.

On a positive note, the paper suggests that women may be more supportive than men of leaders who exhibit more feminine leadership styles. “We found as we had expected that women showed higher appreciation for communal attributes in leaders in comparison to men,” both the researchers say.

Understanding the Mindset

To reach the findings, the researchers assessed men’s and women’s idea of a great leader in two studies using different methodologies. In the first study, 273 men and women were asked to design their “ideal leader” to examine the potential trade-off between leadership characteristics that were more stereotypically masculine (i.e., agency) and feminine (i.e., communality) by giving them a budget of "leader dollars".

In the second study, the researchers examined men’s and women’s beliefs about the traits that would be important to help them personally succeed in a randomly assigned leader (vs. assistant) role. “We found that both men and women viewed agentic traits as more important than communal traits to be a successful leader. Together, both studies make a valuable contribution to the social psychological literature on gender stereotyping and bias against female leaders and may illuminate the continued scarcity of women at the very top of organizations, broadly construed,” the researchers say.

“Furthermore, if women tend to internalize a stereotypically masculine view of leadership, it follows that women who have an interest in and attain leadership roles might have a strong tendency to behave in line with those role expectations—for example, by displaying assertiveness, which could elicit backlash and penalties for violating gender prescriptions.”

Pooja Singh

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A stickler for details, Pooja Singh likes telling people stories. She has previously worked with Mint-Hindustan Times, Down To Earth and Asian News International-Reuters.