A Female Leadership Trust Advantage in Times of Crisis: Under What Conditions?
Female leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors are trusted more than male leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors when organizations are in crises with low uncertainty about consequences.
Some researchers argue that modern organizations increasingly require relational skills for success. Relational skills include the ability to anticipate and manage other people’s emotions through modulating the situation, attentional focus, messaging, and emotion response. Women are, on average, more likely to adopt a relational approach to leadership than men are. Research has also found that women can achieve better outcomes in salary negotiations when they communicate their concerns for maintaining good organizational relationships.
Because women are more likely to exhibit high levels of relational behavior, and because organizations increasingly require relational behaviors for successful leadership, women may be preferred for filling leadership roles in modern organizations, a phenomenon that researchers call the “female leadership advantage.”
However, the evidence for whether the “female leadership advantage” exists is mixed. It is difficult to measure the effects of gender versus relational skills on the effectiveness of a leader. Furthermore, existing research does not specify in which kinds of organizational contexts such an advantage might exist for women. The latter is particularly important because research has shown that a leader’s relational skills may be perceived as more important in predictable, controllable crises with low levels of uncertainty, whereas agentic skills, such as the ability to “take charge” of a situation and taking decisive action, may be perceived as more important in unpredictable, uncontrollable crises with high levels of uncertainty.
Through two studies, researchers investigate who is more trusted to lead an organization in a crisis (female vs. male leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors), and whether the leaders’ trustworthiness is impacted by the nature of the crisis (high vs. low uncertainty about consequences). The leader’s level of trustworthiness is measured both by trustworthiness evaluations (that is, whether people thought this leader was trustworthy) and trusting behaviors (that is, whether people would invest in a company led by this leader, such as through economic resources).
Female leaders are more trusted to lead organizations in times of crisis if 1) the female leader exhibits high levels of relational behaviors, and 2) the crisis is characterized by low uncertainty about the crisis’s consequences.
● Female leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors scored 0.42 points higher on trustworthiness (on a scale of 1 to 7) than male leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors.
o There is no significant difference in levels of trust between female leaders exhibiting low levels of relational behaviors and male leaders exhibiting low levels of relational behaviors.
● In crises with low levels of uncertainty around consequences (that is, the resolution to the crisis can be handled through existing protocol and knowledge), female leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors scored 0.46 points higher on trustworthiness (on a scale of 1 to 7) than male leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors.
o In crises with high levels of uncertainty around consequences (that is, the resolution to the crisis cannot be handled through existing protocol and knowledge), there is no significant difference in levels of trust between female leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors and male leaders exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors.
● Participants were more likely to invest in a company in crisis only when a woman exhibiting high levels of relational behaviors is leading the company and uncertainty around the consequences of the crisis is low.
Relational qualities always help restore trust in a company. Female leaders’ relational qualities can help restore trust in a company more so than male leaders’ relational qualities during uncertain times, but only if the crisis is perceived as predictable, controllable, and with low levels of uncertainty.
Study 1 included 412 participants, which were randomly assigned to one of the eight three-way combinations of: low or high situational uncertainty about cause of the crisis; leader with high or low IEM; and female or male leader. The simulation was of a crisis in the production team of an aeronautics company. Participants across the eight combinations had to indicate their trust levels for the combination they were randomly assigned.
Study 2 included 398 participants which followed the same design as study 1, except that now the situational uncertainty was around the consequences of the crisis, rather than the cause – which meant the crisis would have either unknown effects or no negative effects. Further, study 2 changed the context of the company to the fast food industry as aeronautics is considered a typically masculine industry. Additionally, trust in the leader was also measured with an investment game that asks participants how they would invest a hypothetical sum either in the company in crisis or a similar company not in crisis – with the hypothesis that if they trusted the leader’s ability to successfully manage the company out of the crisis, there would be higher investment in the company in crisis.