Tag Archives: imposter syndrome

It doesn’t pay to be too nice 

P1000657 - Version 2Professor Adrian Furnham’s column in The Sunday Times is always of interest to psychologically minded executives and his book; “The Elephant in the Boardroom – the causes of leadership derailment”, should be essential reading for all would-be directors.

As a psychologist I liked the piece in which he explained why nice guys don’t always win – because of their Agreeable personality.

Agreeableness is one of the Big 5 Personality Factors (along with Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism).

He points out that Agreeableness can be a handicap in business as the higher you score on this factor, the less likely you are to succeed as a business leader!

Most of us would prefer to work for an agreeable rather than a disagreeable boss, wouldn’t we? Well perhaps not says Furnham. Agreeable bosses may make you dissatisfied by not dealing with poor performers and being too forgiving, maybe treating you all the same, or being manipulated by your more devious colleagues.

One of my earlier posts Sometimes you just have to tell em” was about research at Roffey Park that showed that we are not very good at dealing with underperformance or telling people what we want, that strong managers get more respect, and that a firm consistent approach is better for morale and performance generally.

And it gets worse – if you’re a female. The Times reported last year on some research carried out by the Institute of Employment Research and concluded that;  “It doesn’t pay for a female boss to be too nice. The research showed that personality factors do come into account and that, for example, nice people earn less.

Too niceApparently nice women are being swept away by openly aggressive ones who know what they want.

A more recent paper presented to the Academy of Management by Beth A Livingston from Cornell University analysed surveys spread over 20 years. She found that  significantly less agreeable men earned 18.3% more than men who were significantly more agreeable. For women the difference was less, just 5.5%.

Livingston said; “Men’s disagreeable behaviour conforms to expectations of masculine behaviour“.

Apparently nice women are being swept away by openly aggressive ones who know what they want.

Working hard obviously helps but if you are too conscientious you may be seen as neurotic (or get bullied), and extraverts do no better than introverts.

Professor Cary Cooper, at the University of Lancaster Management School, agrees but also thinks women have more emotional intelligence than men and are not generally as egocentric.

So agreeable managers have to learn how to toughen up – for the sake of their team and the organisation, just as the disagreeable ones have to learn how to be nice – if only for the PR.

The July 2010 issue of Psychologies magazine has picked up on this topic in their article; “Why it pays to be tough at work“. It suggests that the prevailing view that it’s not the cleverest (presumably meaning IQ) but those with the highest emotional intelligence that succeed is wrong.

That was always a simplistic view at best and one that Adrian Furnham disagrees with as he says there is evidence that disagreeable poeple do better. The German research quoted says agreeable women earned £40,000 less over a lifetime than women who behaved more like ruthless men.

The article’s author then has a go at empathy. She quotes Jack Welch’s wife as saying that; “too much empathy is paralysing” when you have to give tough feedback or make tough decisions, and goes on to talk about women being prone to slipping into “good mother” roles where they create “gardens of entitlement” sowing seeds of future problems (such as?).

After dismissing empathy – by quoting Neutron Jack’s wife for goodness sake – the author next attacks self-knowledge which she doesn’t consider essential for top jobs as it can detract from self-confidence if it makes you aware of your failings (is she serious that these people don’t need feedback ?

Some people have short memories; what about Enron, the banks or BP?. Furnham is quoted as saying that people who get on may be narcissistic – which is not the only dark-side attribute.

If men overestimate their abilities and don’t navel gaze while women underestimate themselves and have self-doubt (imposter syndrome) then women seemed doomed to fail according to the author and people like Suzy Welch.

In fact the author seems to welcome emotional stupidity as it makes less demands on her. She even has a dig at Anne Mulcahy, ex-CEO of Xerox, because, although she has written about what women can bring to the workplace in terms of emotionality which makes them better leaders, she cut 1/3 of the workforce.

Did she not wonder how Neutron Jack got his nickname?

Original published on 12 April 2010


Women & Teams

not always words you find together given that many women in business have reputations as either “Queen Bees”, people who make the most of their “erotic capital”, or simply aggressive. 

BusMtg07Then we had the research finding that said that to make a team more intelligent – simply add more women.

But the question is whether or not women like working in teams?

The Observer this  weekend reported that two academic economists (and have you noticed how economists are trespassing on research topics more typically associated with psychologists) have published results of an experiment in the Economic Journal.

They found that in competitive tasks 80% of men chose to do it as individuals compared to just under 30% of women (they were equally able on the tasks). They called this the “gender competition gap” and found that it shrank by more than half when the only option was to compete in teams. Then 67% of men and 45% of women chose to compete.

Previous research has shown that men prefer to compete more than women even when they are equally able to do the task. The economists, Andrew Healey and Jennifer Pate, say that it is the environment which is important and changing that can narrow the gender competition gap.

They point out that there are only 5 women CEOs of FTSE100 companies and think that if the emphasis was shifted away from “testosterone-fuelled gladiatorial-style competition” to an environment that focusses on their team-working ability, things could change in favour of women. We know that women are frustrated by their perceived under-representation on boards but it is improving, and some writers think that women have already won the battle of the sexes at work.

They also point out that men will apply for jobs for which they are under-qualified  whilst women do the opposite and if selection or competition was based on teamwork more women and fewer men might apply.

I posted on this issue a year ago following the publication of a management survey which showed that people trusted female CEOs more than male ones to get their company out of recession and save jobs. But women suffer more than men from “imposter syndrome” and are therefore less likely to apply for jobs unless they are highly confident they can do them, whereas men are more likely to overestimate their capability and apply regardless.

Female CEOs still trusted more than males

Almost half of the 5,000 employees polled for the Index of Leadership Trust thought that their CEOs had handled the impact of recession well.

And, as in last year’s survey, female CEOs are still trusted more than their male counterparts.

The second annual survey ( a 50:50 mix of managers and non-managers) carried out by the Management Today magazine and the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) had better news than last year with leaders being rated more highly for creating more open and understanding cultures. They seemed to be making an attempt to be more visible.

And there was an 8% increase in that trust for female CEOs amongst male employees and an even higher 11% for those men who weren’t managers. (See my earlier post on last year’s survey at: “Do you trust your boss?“). It seems women are rated higher, not just on doing their job well, but in being principled and honest, and particularly in understanding the problems facing employees.

Penny de Valk, CEO of the ILM, is keen to play down the gender stereotype. She says it’s not because women are more empathetic than men but because; “we know that women are not likely to put themselves forward for new roles unless they feel 95% capable, whereas men will happily do so at 65%, so what happens is that when women are promoted, they are very familiar with the tasks their people are doing”.

Well women do suffer more from imposter syndrome than men so there is probably something in that but women are probably are more empathic than men and many have to work hard at achieving a reasonable work-life balance to avoid being stressed out and suffering ill-health as a result.

So is this a backlash against alpha male leaders? These findings also conflict with another recent survey I posted a blog about which showed that all employees prefer male bosses: “Most people prefer male bosses“.

There are only 5 female CEOs in FTSE 100 companies: Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco, Dame Marjorie Scardino at Pearson, Angela Ahrendts at Burberry, Cynthia Carroll at Anglo American, and Katherine Garrett-Cox at Alliance Trust.

Regardless of gender the largest negative factor in determining trust in CEOs is whether or not there has been cost-cutting. The greater the severity of cut-backs the lower the trust in line managers and particularly in CEOs.The  CEO trust score in organisations that haven’t suffered is 68 but in organisations that have suffered cuts it drops to 51 – so massive consequences as de Valk concedes.

And it’s even grimmer news for the public sector. They already have the lowest trust in their CEOs of any sector – and I wonder if that is linked in any way to the massive salaries and pension pots they have accrued over the last decade?. With the swingeing cutbacks planned by the government it can only get worse.

Anxious Leaders – who’d have thought it?

Perhaps leaders have been having a hard time, what with the economy and all (well excluding the bankers of course). Catherine Sandler writing in People Management, a magazine for HR professionals, sets out the steps that HR people can take to help leaders manage their anxiety ManagingLeaderAnxiety-CIPD0410

And while it’s usually female leaders who suffer most from “imposter syndrome” – and some women might argue that many men lack the self-awareness to even think they might not be up to the job – that’s not necessarily true any more. Amelia Hill in The Observer last year revealed that about 50% of men feel anxious most of the time – especially around women – and most often at work.

“Feeling like a fraud”, was the heading for an article on Imposter Syndrome in the latest issue of Psychologist (Vol 23 No 5 May 2010). The author describes it as having 3 components: first, you feel that other people have an inflated perception of your capabilities, secondly, you worry about being “found out”, and thirdly, you attribute your success to external factors such as” being in the right place at the right time”.

This condition may typically take hold when you are starting a new job and worrying about making a good impression. I have seen this often when working with executives coaching them through their first 100 days. It seems almost everyone can experience the feeling of being incompetent at times and comparing themselves with others they consider better performers doesn’t help.  They might be better examining their own feelings about being successful and why they might self-sabotage.

Apparently male confidence is at a low and with no strong real-life role models men are resorting to fictional characters, lucky charms, lucky socks, lucky pants, and alcohol.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/07/men-low-esteem-work-bedroom