Women who take on leadership roles in academia and business should resist the urge to adopt ‘masculine’ traits such as aggression to get results and use emotional intelligence instead, says psychologist Paula Nicolson from Royal Holloway, University of London in the United Kingdom.
In a recent study of leadership and management in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), Nicolson found that women in senior positions tend to behave as they think men behave. “This notion drives women away from a healthy assertiveness into emulating more aggressive male models,” she says.
Nicolson says the issue is exacerbated by a lack of support at the top. “Organisations feel that provided they have appointed enough women at a certain level, their job ends there,” she tells Naturejobs. “There don’t seem to be enough role models who [use] emotional intelligence.”
Both women and men should use emotional intelligence more to understand the needs and motivations of employees, says Nicolson: “There are different approaches for different situations, but you still need to make it worth their while to do something with and for you and the organisation.”
Although the study was conducted in the healthcare sector, Nicolson says the findings also apply to labs and research departments. “As the primary investigator, you still need to think about how your staff are managing their own roles,” she says. “You can’t make assumptions.”
Rachel Webster, an astrophysicist at the University of Melbourne in Australia and winner of one of Nature‘s 2006 mentoring awards, is a good example of how using emotional intelligence can help you succeed as a leader in science. In her nomination for the mentoring award, she was commended for recognising the skills of individuals in her team and for appreciating that not everyone will have the same career trajectory as her. “She assumes you are a complex person who also happens to be a scientist, instead of a scientist who it so happens turns out to be a complex individual,” says Maurizio Toscano of the University of Melbourne (see ’Model mentors’ for more).
Webster says she works hard at using emotional intelligence in her professional interactions. “As a supervisor, I try to work as a collaborator, to allow my students to develop their own agendas rather than imposing my own,” she says. Her management style eschews the stereotypical ‘male’ model of leadership, which she says is characterised by traits such as low levels of empathy, a rigid hierarchy and a reluctance to express divergent opinions. “I try to understand things from my students’ point of view,” she says.
What do you think? What is your experience of different management styles, and what style would you say is most effective in a research environment? Share your thoughts below.
UPDATE: 14 July, 2011 – A new meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin supports the notion that men fit the cultural stereotype of leadership better than women, but shows that the perception of women in leadership roles is improving.