Do the sexes really each have a distinct management style; or is style more directly related to each individual than to gender? By Jarek Czechowicz
Management style is largely an individual issue. But there are some broad characteristics that may be attributable to each sex. The most common belief is that males take a hard approach and females take a soft approach. Another is that men prefer top-down management structures and women prefer flat structures. But is it true? What does it mean? And are there any lessons to be learnt?
When female subordinates were asked if they felt responsible for their bad behaviour; 52% said “no” when the rebuke came from a female boss, and only 18% said “no” when the boss was male.
– Study headed by Leanne Atwater, Arizona State University School of Management.
Perhaps we should first take a look at the changing context in which management is practised, namely the organisation. Not so long ago there was only one context in which managers managed: the hierarchical organisation structure. In recent times there has been a move towards flat structures wherein people work together on a more equal footing.
Organisations have also gone through substantial changes in three other areas. They are, in no particular order, the need for companies to become more efficient through downsizing, the emergence of “generation X” workers, and the increasing numbers of females in management.
The proliferation of hierarchical structures can safely be attributed to males. The development of flat structures could be attributed to the influence of women or to “generation Xers”. But it could also be that people are generally looking at better ways of managing. Faced with continuing uncertainty, people may be in the process of seeking a way of achieving this by reorganising. The flat structure could simply be an evolutionary response to changing circumstances and new opportunities.
David Karpin’s 1995 report, Enterprising Nation, forecast the demise of the command-and-control style of management. Now there seems to be a move towards a management style in which the manager is an enabler rather than a commander.
Machiavelli wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” However, Machiavelli never considered a situation in which no one in particular would introduce the change, in which something evolves from many small changes until it becomes big enough to warrant attention. It seems that the flat structure has developed in a way that reflects its style. And that style seems to suit females and “generation Xers”.
Former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell believes that women tend to prefer flat management structures. “You have to earn respect in a flat management structure. It does not come with the title. Once you have earned the respect, it is easier to keep than in a hierarchical structure based on titles.
“In difficult situations you often have to rely on staff to go through a lot of things that might be above and beyond the call of duty. A flat management structure depends more on a sharing of vision and direction. Everyone needs to have a good understanding of where you are trying to go as an organisation. This makes it much easier to manage, and communication becomes more natural.”
People today are less likely to put up with an environment in which they are forced in a certain direction. Australians are particularly resistant to that kind of thing. It is part of the larrikin quality. However, people do want to know that they are working for someone with a strong sense of direction.
Carnell says: “Some people see a woman with a strong sense of direction as bitchy. Male managers can get away with a level of dictatorial style. Women generally can’t get away with this. If I ever yelled at my staff, people would think that I was losing the plot. People will not wear it from women. But it is a good discipline, because one should not yell at people. It is difficult for female managers to let off steam. If you cry it is considered immature and if you yell it is unacceptable behavior.”
Carnell believes that, as a nation, we are innovative but, in terms of management, we have not exactly set the world on fire. “There is a view among male managers that they’ve got to be tough and aloof. I don’t have to pretend that I am tough. I am not. I get upset and hassled from time to time and so do my staff. I think that giving a cuddle to a PA who has just had a hard day is a good thing to do. I think the differences in male and female management styles are based on empathy.”
Carnell sees personal presentation as an important element of female management style. “Perceptions matter. The press will comment on the dress that a female manager wore; but they never comment on the suit or tie that a male manager wore.”
However, she believes that the trends in management are positive. Corporate structures are getting flatter. People have more input into the direction of companies. Managers are becoming more aware of the need to create workplaces that are people-friendly and family-friendly. As this develops, we may see more women in senior management positions. Carnell says: “At the end of the day, the question is how to get the best out of the people you work with. A part of the answer is to include people in a creative way.”
Companies have not yet embraced creativity to the extent that they could. However, many companies are becoming aware of the need to employ people who think differently. Women in management positions fill some of the gaps in the area of creativity.
Carnell says: “My approach is always to find the creative people so that I am not surrounded by clones of myself. A team of people who think the same tends to ingrain the same mistakes.”
The secretary of transport and regional services at the Department of Defence, Allan Hawke, says: “Most organisations are not in good shape and they are managed by men. There seems to be a link there. I think it is important for chief executives to keep a close eye on gender balance and diversity. The reason is that we want a range of views about what is going on in the real world.”
To find a team with a good gender balance you need to go down three or four levels in most organisations. Bureaucracies and large organisations seem to do something to turn women off from about middle management onwards. Could it have something to do with the power politics that men play?
font-family:Arial’>Hawke thinks there is nothing to prevent men from picking up some of the softer skills that women have. “Most men, until recently, have not thought much about the soft side of management. Many prefer the hard-bitten economic rationalist approach.”
Hawke says it is not important whether good managers are men or women they are leaders. He believes that some of the weaknesses of the typical Australian manager are lack of vision, poor team skills, inflexibility, poor self-management skills and inability to cope with diversity. On the positive side he sees them as hard working, independent thinking, open, genuine, direct and ethical.
Stereotypical managers have the game plan figured out. They have all the answers, and that is why they are managers. But the speed of technological and social change has made management uncomfortable for a lot of people. Managers need to be able to handle ambiguity and discontinuity.
Organisations that undertake substantial change experience resistance from some people, who undermine the change or refuse to implement it. Noela L Estrange, general manager of business development with the Australian Government Solicitor, says: “Discomfort makes people dysfunctional. They will take time off and they will affect the rest of their team. The only thing that experts can agree on is that the change will keep coming and it will probably get faster.”
If managers are uneasy about change, it is only going to make others uneasy too.
Emotional intelligence is coming to be recognised as an asset in a manager. One of the main advantages of emotional intelligence is that people who are able to respond to others with the appropriate emotion have a better chance of communicating and, by implication, of managing more effectively.
L Estrange says: “When I started my professional life in the early 1970s I was told never to show any emotion because it was a sign of weakness. That was in the legal profession. I did not agree with it then and I don’t agree with it now.”
She believes that male managers still under-rate the value of qualities such as patience and gratitude. “I have firm views on what leadership is. Leadership and management are about community. And it is a collaborative activity. It is not something you can do in isolation. You do this work with a diverse group of individuals who have a common purpose. And it is about establishing what the common purpose is.”
And a common purpose can be established only in a co-operative environment. Inclusiveness is not just about going to the pub or the club. It is about open communication and knowing boundaries within which you can take risks.
L Estrange says: “A good manager must be fair dinkum. You cannot vacillate. You cannot change the fundamental and really important things, like sticking by your word. If you say you are going to do something, you’ve got to do it. If you are being fair dinkum, then you are being honest, reliable and open. And people know that, when they come to talk to you, they are going to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Martin Luther King said leadership meant a tough mind and a tender heart. L Estrange says: “Being tough is about resilience, flexibility and durability; but being hard is a static state.”
There may not be any one management method to suit all, but it is useful to be acquainted with how others are doing it. A fundamental management strength is to be able to cope in different ways with different people in different situations. L Estrange says: “Some managers fail in confusing a change of style with the inability to make up one’s mind.”
Consistency in key areas is necessary; but being able to “adapt to change” and “change to adapt” are the things that will keep you in management.
L Estrange believes that women take a more inclusive and holistic approach in their decision making. “Women often consider more peripheral issues. As well as being business focused they will tend to ask about the effect on people.”
Another trait attributed to the female style is empathy. L Estrange says: “Women managers will pick up vibes and bits of information that are not just related to the reports and pieces of paper that come across your desk. A report might be just the tip of the iceberg; and if you make your decisions based on that, then you can find yourself running into heaps of trouble later when all the sub-issues suddenly come to the surface.”
L Estrange says women are better communicators because they often take more care over crafting communication strategy and communicating at a personal level. It is important to have answers to questions such as, who needs to know, what is the context in which they need the information, and what do they need to do as a result of knowing. It is all about creating a context for communication. “Decisions have a better chance of implementation when the message has a resonance for the reader, who can then see what their role is in the game plan.”
The executive officer of the ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Christopher Peters, thinks that male and female management styles are different but complementary in most cases. “Men are often better working in a hierarchical structure and are more intent on the work at hand than on building personal relationships. I think you need different styles for different job roles.” He also thinks that women compete differently from men: males prefer to compete as individuals and women prefer to compete as part of a team.
Peters heads a team of people who work on industrial relations issues, which often involve hard-nosed negotiations. “We will move different people into those roles depending on the timing of the negotiations. It becomes a matter of what skills are needed to progress them to the next stage. There will be times when you need a tough negotiator who will give nothing. There will be times when you need a facilitator who will help move things forward. Men are generally better negotiators and women are better facilitators.”
Thirty years ago, there were few women in senior management roles. Today there are some successful women in middle and senior management roles. However, there are still few women in the boardrooms. Peters says we will see considerable changes over the next 20 years as these senior managers move through into directorships.
He says mentoring will also accelerate the change for women. “In male-dominated areas, the people who succeed often have a mentor to help bring them through. When women are less threatened by their own success, they will feel more comfortable in assisting others to grow as they have. The threat is that you have younger people snapping at your heels. I like to surround myself with the best people I can get, and I am delighted if people are snapping at my heels. I find it is best for me and best for them. But some people find that threatening. I think it is inevitable that it will change.”
Former ministerial chief of staff Meg Bartel has worked in the political arena for more than 20 years. Bartel says there is no difference in male and female management styles. She believes that, regardless of gender, some of the more important qualities are listening, thinking on the run, talking from the heart or from notes rather than from speeches, maintaining perspective in a crisis, being able to breathe correctly, and knowing what is happening in the broader community.
Having a clear understanding of doing what is right is critical in political office. Bartel says: “It is a sensitive environment where anything can become headline news the next day. If there is not a clear communication about the right and wrong ways of doing things, everybody in the office can suffer as a result.”
To ensure that things are happening the right way, staff must be able to ask questions. This also helps managers to think more deeply about areas they might not have considered in any depth otherwise. Some managers do find being questioned challenging, yet the questioning itself shows that people are thinking about what they are doing.
Bartel says: “I don’t think there is a difference in styles. We all think in different ways in any case. We are all programmed differently and it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman. There are male and female managers that think outside the square.”
Bartel says a sense of humor goes a long way in keeping a team together in situations in which the pressure is high and the hours are long. She says an open-door policy is a big factor in creating an efficient work place, as is a sociable attitude. “I think of people as working with me rather than under me. We are equals. This brings about loyalty and respect.”