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Male Leaders Judged More Harshly

June 5 2012 - It isn't surprising to find that leaders who make mistakes are viewed as:

  • less competent
  • less appealing to work for
  • less effective

But a new study* by Christian N Thoroughgood, Samuel T Hunter and Katina B Sawyer shows that male leaders who make mistakes in what is perceived as a man's world are also judged more critically than a female leader.

Anybody, including leaders, can make mistakes - often with far-reaching and negative consequences. Effective leaders need their subordinates to have trust in their capacity to make difficult decisions, carry through initiatives and to be positive figureheads in the organization. Leaders have to be viewed as competent and getting things wrong leads to followers questionning their competence and being less willing to follow them and work for them.

The researchers used 284 undergraduates with an average of 3 years work experience as subjects for their study. They were requested to imagine they were men or women subordinates and asked to read a series of fictional emails describing their leaders' actions. Their ratings were compared as they rated male and female leaders who made mistakes. The focus of the study was on how subordinates might look at leaders differently depending on:

  • the type of mistake they made: task errors or relationship errors
  • the gender context, i.e., a man or a woman working in either a man's world (construction) or a woman's world (nursing).

The students then answered an online survey that measured:

  • their view of leadership competence, both task and relationship
  • how much they wanted to work for the leader
  • their opinion on the effectivess/non-effectivenes of the leader

Not surprisingly, it appears that mistakes did have a negative impact on the perception of leaders who made them with 'subordinates' being less likely to want to work for them. Also leaders who made mistakes were seen as being less competent and less effective.

In terms of gender, male leaders were rated more negatively than women leaders for mistakes made in 'masculine' work domains. The researchers point to stereotyped expectations of successful male performance in this context, whie women were expected to fail in a masculine environment.

According to the authors:

"Our results suggest that leader errors matter; errors damage perceptions of a leader's competence and follower's desire to work for them. While it is impractical to suggest leaders should attempt to avoid errors altogether, they should recognize the different types of errors they make and consider how these errors impact their followers in different ways."

* Thoroughgood CN, Sawyer K and Hunter S (2012). "Real men don't make mistakes: investigating the effects of leader gender, error type and the occupational context on leader error perceptions" Journal of Business and Psychology; DOI 10.1007/s10869-012-9263-8

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