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(WOMENSENEWS)--While the glass ceiling is real and its consequences for women severe, its root cause has been elusive.
A recent study by our firm CDR Assessment Group, where I serve as president, sheds light on the huge role of personality risk factors for leadership advancement.
Most illuminating and new is that many female leaders are "worriers," a self-defeating risk factor. They lose visibility and hurt their credibility by not standing their ground and by overanalyzing.
But these findings are actually good news. Now that we have measured and can clearly pinpoint what is holding women back, we can begin implementing developmental strategies and solutions that work.
Executives should learn what personality risk factors women in their organizations have and, if they are worriers, to be partners in helping them learn more productive ways to deal with conflict and stress.
Executives involved with succession need to refrain from being overly jaded about a woman's tendency to worry, because this frequently results in a fatalistic or stalled career trajectory.
While the worrier trait is an inherent or ingrained personality trait, developmental support can help the leader to minimize, prevent or neutralize the risk behaviors from interfering with her effectiveness. While these risks cannot be trained or wished away completely, they certainly can be managed more productively, especially with the support of others.
Women have a role model in Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. In her book "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," Sandberg writes about quelling her fears and self-doubt.
"I know that in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities," Sandberg writes. "I still face situations that I fear are beyond my qualifications. And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not. But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I have learned to sit at the table."
11 Risk Factors
In our study, we looked at a random sample of 137 female leaders and 123 male leaders across 35 companies predominately in the U.S.
The CDR Leadership Risk Assessment instrument measures 11 inherent personality risk factors that undermine performance. The normative database has over 150,000 working adults so the results are solid. While we also measure personality-based strengths with the CDR Character Assessment, the risk factors are the detractors that hurt effectiveness. Some refer to these as the dark sides of personality.
By analyzing male and female leaders the results indicate what happens to these leaders under the all-too-common conditions of stress, conflict and pressure.
Under stress, women tend to study, overanalyze and avoid adversity. A fearful, cautious and moving-away-from-conflict approach results in women being judged as lacking courage and confidence. This behavior is contrary to the expectation that leaders need to tackle tough issues and to manage conflict productively.
Meanwhile, male leaders showed a statistically significant difference for being "egotists," "rule breakers" and "upstagers" under adversity and conflict.
Yes, these are all personality risk factors that can, in the course of a career, be liabilities. But women face a perception problem: Risks more typically displayed by male leaders are viewed by decisions makers as more acceptable for the leader track than risks displayed by female leaders.
Being a "fighter" fits the conventional leader paradigm; being fearful does not.
In greater numbers men fight for resources, fight for airtime. They aggressively win the day, albeit with over-the-top pushy, in-your-face and "brave" behaviors.
Winning Perception Battle
Men win the perception battle as they stay in the game with stamina to fight to the end, while women run away and are fearful to speak up. Men push forward hard and fast. Clearly, the overconfident and aggressive behaviors exhibited more by male leaders are viewed as "leader-like" by the promotional power brokers.
Bottom line: Under pressure many women default to self-defeating, diminishing behaviors that take them out of the leadership limelight and pipeline. Women, by their own ineffective coping strategies, often pull themselves out of the running.
But women possess amazing talent, knowledge and skills as leaders and in all career vocations. This is validated by performance studies and bright side personality traits.
As managers, women are consistently given higher marks by colleagues and subordinates than their male counterparts. So it is time we begin to appreciate and cultivate their capability, while understanding that all leaders have risk factors.
Keep in mind, every person and leader has normal personality risk factors although these are not an excuse for bad or dysfunctional behaviors.
To be most successful one must leverage strengths while keeping risks in check. Any one or combination of the 11 risks can derail a woman's or man's career if they run amok. The key is self-awareness and neutralizing risks so strengths shine through.
One way to facilitate development is with individual assessment and coaching to help women (and men) understand and manage their risks more productively, particularly the tendency to worry.
Cultural bias has been engrained since early in the history of humankind. Most take part by accepting or endorsing gender misperceptions without consciously realizing they are doing so.
It is the perceptions and stereotypes that hold droves of women back while perceptions and biases catapult men forward.
To see the CDR Assessment Group's full study results, go to www.cdrassessmentgroup.com and request a complimentary white paper or presentation.
Nancy Parsons co-founded CDR Assessment Group, Inc. in 1998 and is an expert in executive coaching, leadership development, talent management, HR and assessments. Her firm hosts a webinar titled "Don't Worry – Be Decisive!" So far, all attendees have been female business leaders.
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