What’s Different about Leading Women?

New Rules for Women, shows—that women often have different relationship expectations of their female colleagues than they do of males. I call these expectations women’s friendship rules. We begin to develop friendship rules at a very young age, but by the time we are adults our friendship rules have become unconscious. Men have friendship rules, too, but because of differences in our gender socialization, theirs are not the same. Women’s friendship rules tend to be much more egalitarian and relational, while men’s expectations, reflected in most workplace cultures as “the right way to be,” are more transactional and hierarchical. Women expect female colleagues and team members to be friendly, to share personal information, and to be collaborative. In fact, the coach in our opening story seems to be reflecting men’s friendship rules when she asks how to get the women to “just focus on the task” of winning games. I told the coach she was asking the women to be men—and they are not men—which would not work. As their leader, her task is to help them build the strong relationships they need for effective teamwork and to be motivated to win. I also suggested that she was another factor in the motivation equation. Not only do our friendship rules create expectations of peers and colleagues, but my research shows that female subordinates often expect different leadership behaviors from their female managers or leaders as well, needing them to be more relational, too. They do not have this expectation of male leaders. This means the female coach may need to spend more time chatting and getting to know her team members than she’s accustomed to motivate them. Here are five tips for leading women in the office and on the playing field:

  1. Create a shared vision, or picture, of a high-performing team. What is happening? How does it feel to be a team member? How are team members working together? Facilitate a conversation among the team members to help them create a shared vision of what it means to them to be a high-performing team.
  2. Make team agreements, or explicit friendship rules, about how team members will behave to support each other, be friendly, handle disagreements, compete, and have different roles and styles. We are not all the same, and we need to make our expectations clear to each other and find common ground about what to expect.
  3. Tend to relationships, and do not push hurt feelings or misunderstandings under the rug. Create regular spaces to clean the relational field, or take time to talk about interactions that have not gone well and create new agreements about how to handle them next time.
  4. Celebrate successful teamwork.
  5. Encourage friendships, but discourage cliques, for the good of the team.
Women’s gender socialization means that for many women being team players and collaborating comes easily. We need to be intentional, though, about making our unconscious expectations of each other explicit so that we can both work hard as individuals to reach our individual potential and be authentic and caring as friends and teammates who maintain strong and supportive relationships. We can do both.  ]]>

2 thoughts on “What’s Different about Leading Women?”

  1. It’s so funny – these 5 ‘tips’ are things that I find myself working on a lot with work groups of (mostly) MEN. They don’t know how to do it, and don’t know how to value it – and yet they find themselves working much better as a group once they have done this work.


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