How do groups of people working together towards a common goal identify the leaders among them?

According to management research, those who exhibit change-oriented behavior, like speaking up with suggestions on how the group can improve overall performance, emerge as leaders amongst their peers.

But a new study from Dr. Elizabeth McClean at the University of Arizona—with the assistance of the United States Military Academy at West Point—shows that while men benefit from speaking their minds at work, women don’t receive the same type of peer recognition for doing the same.

To test their theory, the researchers setup two fascinating studies that explored how gender and the type of feedback given by group members affected peer perception of each other as leaders. The first study examined groups of cadets at West Point competing in a group obstacle competition. The groups of cadets train together for months leading up to the competition, allowing the researchers to test their theory on groups that were familiar with one another.

Of particular interest to McClean was how two types of feedback affect leader emergence, and what role gender plays in these groups. One type of feedback, promotive voice, refers to the “expression of new ideas or suggestions for improving the overall functioning of the work unit or organization.” The other, prohibitive voice, is the “expression of concern about work practices or employee behaviors that are harmful to one’s organization.”

McClean and team hypothesized that promotive voice (“Let’s try this!”) would be more effective for leader emergence than prohibitive voice (“Let’s stop this!”), but the effect would be different for men and women in the groups.

Cadets participating were asked to self-assess how often they use each voice by answering questions like “I proactively develop and make suggestions for issues that may influence my team,” or “I advise other teammates against undesirable behaviors that would hamper job performance.” Then, each cadet was asked to assess their peers with questions like “This person has a high level of respect in others’ eyes.”

Finally, after completing the obstacle competition, cadets were asked to rank peers in their group according to who they would want as a leader if they were to compete in the same contest again.

What they found was not altogether surprising.

Promotive voice was associated with higher status in the group, while prohibitive voice was not. But, only men received the benefits of higher status by using promotive voice. The women in the group “received no benefit from speaking up promotively in terms of status or leader emergence.”

 

Taking it Further

Not satisfied with just the results of one study, the team decided to test their hypothesis another way. 196 adults were asked to participate in an exercise in which they imagined they worked as sales people for an insurance company. In the scenario, the team’s sales were struggling after switching to a new sales script.

With this in mind, participants were then asked to listen to the voice of a teammate making a suggestion to the team. They either heard a male voice or a female voice, and each voice read one of two statements—one promotive and one prohibitive.

The promotive script suggested trying a “new and improved” script that allows more flexibility. The prohibitive script suggested that the team “get rid of this ineffective script” because it restricted flexibility. Same sentiment, but different deliveries. Afterwards, participants were asked to assess whether the two voice they listened to “exhibited leadership,” “influenced the team,” and “assumed a leadership role.”

Just as it was with the West Point cadets, the results showed that “promotive voice positively relates to status and subsequent leader emergence for men, but not for women.”

 

So What Can We Do? 

The clear advice you can take from this study are that it’s better to use promotive voice than prohibitive but be aware of your unconscious biases.

This particular study was unique in that it examined peer attitudes, rather than manager perception, of leaders in the group. Peer attitudes can in turn affect who gets promoted at work and who gets passed up. It’s subtle, and likely unintentional, but by engaging in the same behavior as their male peers, women “do not receive equal evaluation.”

One suggestion for counteracting this implicit bias? Making a concerted effort for recognition and amplification of change-oriented leadership behavior from women coworkers. When a suggestion with merit is made by a female peer, repeat the idea and ensure that credit is given to the woman making the suggestion. According to the Dr. McClean, this will “help legitimize women’s voices because others will sense that it is more valid, which should result in more positive evaluations of the speakers themselves.”

 

U.S. Army Photo by Matt Moeller