News & Insight
December 2003

Women in Management: Learning to Cope with Power

For years we have heard about the “glass ceiling,” invisible organizational barriers that impede or thwart the advancement of women in management. Fortunately, such obstacles are becoming less common, but women still face another hurdle to career growth -- themselves.

Generally speaking, women are uncomfortable with power. At an early age, girls retreat from their early sense of power to achieve social approval. Relationships are critically important to women because a woman’s sense of self is tied to her need for connection or attachment to others. Men, on the other hand, derive their self-esteem from outcomes and actions.

Women executives, especially those who are newly promoted, often feel a general uneasiness with power, but have difficulty pinpointing the exact source of their discomfort. As a result, they engage in a variety of self-sabotaging behaviors, many of which they are unaware. They delegate key tasks more frequently to avoid risk-taking; take on a more aggressive management style to compensate for their lack of confidence and comfort; and adopt “pleasing” behaviors to maintain relationships in good standing.

How can women overcome these tendencies? One way is to leverage one of their innate strengths -- the ability to form relationships -- by networking with women from other organizations who are at their same level and are facing the same issues. The support and encouragement that women can provide to one another in such a setting are invaluable resources for both their job performance and career development.

I know of one woman in such a group who turned to her peers for advice when she discovered that she wasn’t being compensated as highly as some of her male counterparts. She asked the group if she should address this with HR or just sweep it under the rug. The woman’s peers advised her to first validate the information and then discuss it with her boss, not HR. The women then role-played how she would approach her boss with group members, shifting from a somewhat defensive posture to a more mediating approach. The result? The woman’s boss told her the company would make up the difference in her bonus.

Time magazine has predicted that women’s “flexible, mediating approach” will play a vital role in managing America’s heterogeneous work force. Indeed, businesses are moving from a command-and-control style of leadership to a self-managed team approach emphasizing humanity, intimacy, interdependence, connectedness, collaboration, and cooperation -- all of which play to women’s strengths. As more organizations embrace these values, women’s natural leadership styles will become mainstream.

Michelle Marie Piña, Psy.D., is a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and assessment faculty.

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