How to Counteract the Likability Penalty Leadership Bias

Most professional women I talk with want to be at a next level of leadership. They want to make an even bigger impact and they seek more say and more influence over the business. Our cultural meme is if you are a woman, “Now is your time girlfriend!”

Yet women face the Likability Penalty when they act like a leader.

This common gender bias goes as follows: To be a leader you must act “Agentic”. That means you take charge. You are solution oriented and direct people what to do.

Because the inherited collective image of a ‘leader’ has a masculine association, when women act like a leader they can be perceived as ‘incongruent’ with their gender.

Yet, when women don’t act like a leader they are accused of not having potential to lead.  They are seen as erring on the side of ‘taking care’ rather than ‘taking charge’.  They may even be given feedback they are ‘not confident enough’ or ‘too nice’.

This is the “double bind” women experience.

Men are expected to be confident and assertive in order to get things done, but women are deemed ‘less likable’ when they carry out these same behaviors. Sometimes the feedback to women is direct (e.g., ‘she’s too bossy’, or called the other ‘b-word’) other times the feedback is more coded (e.g., she’s ‘not a good fit).

Women are ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t.’ It may create a constant stress of self-scrutiny as you try to strike that ‘goldilocks’ chord of just right in their leadership.

Until we can get enough women into leadership that we successfully create a mental association of “leader” with a wide variety of schemas, there are ways to get out of the double bind so you can be authentic to you AND have more control over the perception you create. 

Research shows that leaders are evaluated based on two dimensions: warmth and competence.  For men the combination of these traits has little effect. Yet women have to be seen as warm in order for their competence to be taken seriously.

What works for women is to balance these dimensions of ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’:

Here are three strategies to to balance ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’ so you can counteract the Likability bias and step up as a leader:

1.Act to Match the Context:  Research shows that women who “self-monitor” (who are versatile to show more or less of these dimensions according to the situation) can reduce the effect of the likability bias.  In fact, when women who are strong leaders  can show this flexibility across situations they receive even more promotions and are seen as more confident and influential than women who display competence alone. Women’s native emotional intelligence abilities can serve thus as a strength.

This idea of balance has practical application in daily duties of a leader, such as behavior in meetings.  If a meeting has a distinct goal and needs a linear process to get there, using more ‘competence’ based language will be a good match to the task.  Use language that is clear, concise, and directive.  Be comfortable using your voice to help the participants get over the finish line of a decision.

On the other hand if the intent of the meeting is brainstorming or building consensus, then a more empathic and inclusive approach is called for.   Your language here would be more about coming up with a process and leading a group based discussion.

Self monitoring enables you to be attuned to the context – even as it might fluidly change within a meeting – so you can show up according to the ‘tone’ of the meeting.

2. Sequence warmth and competence:  Think of building the relationship first before you start to engage in leadership behaviors that are more direct. This might play out in a meeting by inviting others to share or weigh in. Then be the decisive leader who forms the information into a decision and provides a clear way forward.   Many women are natural relationship builders and this approach can seem common sense networking etiquette – to build a connection with the person before you make an Ask about a business need.

3. Negotiate on behalf of others. For decades women’s leadership advocates have encouraged more women to “Ask” but gender based conditioning discouraged women from asking or feeling worthy of asking. Now many more women are Asking (for next level roles, for equal salary) yet when women make these Asks they face a social cost. They may be labeled as (too) ‘aggressive’.

Because I encourage (insist!) that you keep asking, an easy way to counteract this bias is to negotiate on behalf of others.  The part of the Asking that was perceived as incongruent for women was the aspect of ‘acting on her own behalf’, i.e., being selfish.  It comes naturally for women to negotiate on behalf of others because of the way women are oriented to protect or provide for their families/tribes/teams. This approach to negotiating is associated with women as “Mama Bear” and  can eliminate the likability penalty of Asking.

It also helps give you courage to make your Ask, women are often willing to make an even bigger Ask on behalf of others than you might ask on your own behalf.  (Just like we might get out of bed to meet a morning workout buddy to not disappoint them or go the extra mile to do for our children where we might not do so for ourselves).

Picture this: when you walk into a room to ask for a salary raise or propose a big idea, bring with you (in your mind) all the people you are acting on behalf of.  Is it your team (to get needed resources)?  Your family members (to earn more salary for their schooling or summer vacation?).  Is it your ancestors (to speak up and call out something that was unjust?)

Use these approaches to be bold as a leader, ask for what you need, and lead like a boss.  Until we as a society can chip away at collective unconscious bias, these strategies will help you increase your leadership impact and bypasss the possible counterforces of bias.

One of the best ways to change an unconscious bias is for the biased person to see new images and have them become the norm and congruent with their perception of a leader.  Each of you as women can use these strategies to counteract gender bias that may thwart your own advancement, and in so doing you is also contributing to a change in our collective unconscious for you own generation and those behind you.

Everyday women are stepping up to become leaders, be one of them!

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