Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?
November 14, 2017 10:22 AM   Subscribe

There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture? ... In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence.

The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. ...

The paradoxical implication is that the same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people. ... It struck me as a little odd that so much of the recent debate over getting women to “lean in” has focused on getting them to adopt more of these dysfunctional leadership traits. Yes, these are the people we often choose as our leaders — but should they be?
posted by Bella Donna (50 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
ive said it before and i'll say it again:

dunning-kruger is a helluva drug
posted by entropicamericana at 10:32 AM on November 14, 2017 [38 favorites]

An aside that really has very little to do with gender or discerning between confidence and competence (and living in a society where we are taught to do nothing but sell our confidence in ourselves as being a sort of competence, to be able to get a job to begin with), but has been on my mind for several years.

I've had several friends who couldn't find decent paying gigs teaching after they finished their Masters degrees. For example, my friend who graduate with an MA in Critical Theory, ended up taking a job writing original research papers for people who were pursuing doctorates. Many of these people could hardly string a sentence together while writing him emails, but had disposable cash, so they were easily able to pay him to do their research for their education, slap their name on it, and it's a whole new document, not an obvious forgery that the professor can suss out.

This contributes as well because it creates a class of people who will aim for and get those higher-paying, more serious jobs with more serious responsibilities, all because they could afford to pay people who were smarter than them (Those people who but couldn't afford to continue their education, let alone make sustenance off the education they actually have, now reduced to writing papers for the fucksticks who can't even think for themselves.).

So, in my mind, we essentially have a whole generation of leaders without literally a fucking clue as to what they are doing, because when they were getting their "education" they were too busy paying people to be smart for them so they could be the one with the cushy job in the end. A cushy job that actually was never meant to be cushy and they will endlessly fuck up in and, then, in the end, people like me and my friend will be the ones who suffer the consequences.

Anyway, just pointing out that groups that connect people with authors who will accept payment to write wholly original research for students willing to pay for it is a booming business, and to act like it doesn't result in people in power who have no fucking clue what they're doing is pretty naive.
posted by deadaluspark at 10:32 AM on November 14, 2017 [26 favorites]

Mistaking confidence for competence is certainly a serious problem but why is the author so confident that it's the MAIN reason?
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:42 AM on November 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

As someone in a country currently living under the yoke of slapstick wannabe-dictator Theresa May (who just had to encourage a woman to resign from her ministerial post for clueless freelance policymaking and won her position only challenged by Andrea Leadsom, who certainly did not let her lack of experience and competence diminish her self-confidence, and who even the most indulgent observer would characterise as a swivel-eyed loon), I'd suggest that it's institutional sexism and misogyny that makes sure that so many of the people at the top are men. The important question is why almost all, if not all of them are incompetent and delusional regardless of gender.

(Yes, she does want to be a dictator, though mostly because of laziness rather than ideology.)
posted by Grangousier at 10:44 AM on November 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

i don't see how this isn't option 3. "merit" for job promotion is determined by qualities that are stereotyped and culuturally taught/reinforced as "masculine" and then males "earn" the top spots despite not being competant.

I don't think it takes men in a room with cigars and monocles writing secret rules against women ceos to enforce the patriarchy. Instead its the water we swim in. Its thousands of rich white men going with their gut feeling that the person that reminds them of themselves has got that something special that makes them the ideal candidate.

Also, sadly, there probably are also explicit Stadler and Waldorf rooms full of cigar smoke and unmasked sexism.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 10:48 AM on November 14, 2017 [42 favorites]

I couldn't access the Level 5 article that showed an inverse relationship between confidence and leadership. If anyone else did have access, is it an absolute inverse correlation (with the most effective leaders less confident in their leadership than average people) or were they conditioning on a collider (with the most effective leaders less confident in their leadership than less effective leaders)?
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 10:56 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

there's a woman at my work who I'm good friends with who, while somewhat anxious, is charming, smart, and good at managing people and expectations

we recently hired a younger guy who's the whitest of white bread, extremely loud, and is dumb as hell in both what he assumes to be a given and in his extremely slow learning processes

guess who our white male partner spends a lot of time training and mentoring? guess who goes into team meetings confident that someone will have his back?

my friend, of course, has started hating her job and is looking at other ventures. and I'm really hoping she finds somewhere to go that isn't as oppressive as our bright, cheery, bagels-every-Friday workplace is

and don't even fucking get me started on how all the HR and administrative staff are women and most of them black compared to our all white pool of partners and associates
posted by runt at 10:58 AM on November 14, 2017 [66 favorites]

Virginia Valian, a cognitive psychologist, wrote a whole book about this going on 20 years ago now, which is an excellent read and perhaps even more relevant now than when it was written. But she's a woman, and labelled a feminist, so I guess we need this dude writing in HBR to mansplain gender schemas to us. The problem is not that we don't understand where and how gender bias arises and is reinforced, it's that we refuse to listen to the (predominantly) women who are telling us how to do something about it.
posted by aiglet at 11:01 AM on November 14, 2017 [46 favorites]

And just to add - Valian goes into how the same gender schemas that underestimate women's talents and abilities also lead to overestimation of men's skills, and how this results in men having a distorted view of their own abilities and accomplishments that they then must cling to as an essential part of their male identity. Sounds familiar in 2017.
posted by aiglet at 11:03 AM on November 14, 2017 [17 favorites]

Mistaking confidence for competence is certainly a serious problem but why is the author so confident that it's the MAIN reason?

Because they believe that the skillsets for being smart vs being a good leader are the same, and they are not really at all connected. Same with elected officials - they are good at getting elected, which is not the same as good at governing.

Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble And it doesn't matter how often people say this, it's still not true. Sports: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick (NE Patriots), Lebron James, and Nick Saban (U of Alabama head coach) are famously un-humble. The political post asked a bunch of business leaders, if they got the tax decreases they have begged for if they would invest more. The answer came back crickets. Heads of Hollywood- also not humble. Not that some leaders are humble, but it's certainly not necessary.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:05 AM on November 14, 2017

The most salient lesson I learned from men in the early part of the career is that you don't have to know shit to get promoted. You just have to be standing in the right spot and be blandly interesting to the powers-that-be (may work for men only). I also learned that you can just make shit up and people will believe you.

As someone in a country currently living under the yoke of slapstick wannabe-dictator Theresa May (who just had to encourage a woman to resign from her ministerial post for clueless freelance policymaking and won her position only challenged by Andrea Leadsom, who certainly did not let her lack of experience and competence diminish her self-confidence, and who even the most indulgent observer would characterise as a swivel-eyed loon), I'd suggest that it's institutional sexism and misogyny that makes sure that so many of the people at the top are men.

I read this two ways. Yes, it is likely that these women are incompetent. It may be even empirically true. However, we are more likely as a social group to recognize incompetence in women and hold them accountable. We are more likely to allow men the benefit of the doubt. As long as a man isn't actively damaging the hierarchy, he is often given a pass if not a boost to reward him for his incompetence. A woman will get roasted. Is it unjust that she get roasted? Hard to argue it's not. Is it unjust the man gets roasted? We will "devils argue" again and again that it is unjust and we should take it easy on the poor guy as he's just learning/has a good heart/has a lot of potential.

So, as a woman, how I've applied my lessons of men (see above) is in 1) recognizing the areas of my incompetence and working to overcome them, 2) putting my hat in the ring and tamping down my imposter syndrome fear (endemic mostly among women) while vowing to work hard to overcome my shortcomings but, dammit, not sitting back because I'm not perfect at that moment, and finally 3) exerting some extra bravado and know-it-all when it is required to get the job done. That last one is a brilliant skill of both competent and incompetent men. I know that I'll get called to the mat harder for it if I'm wrong but that's the risk-taking I have to do as a woman if I want to put food on the table.
posted by amanda at 11:07 AM on November 14, 2017 [28 favorites]

ended up taking a job writing original research papers for people who were pursuing doctorates.

*double-take* What?
posted by Jimbob at 11:17 AM on November 14, 2017

I work in an organization that is 55% female and where women make up 47% of management (ten years ago that was near 40% female management).

My only conclusion over the past 15 years is that many people are promoted beyond their emotional intelligence and skillsets when hiring into management. Predicting who those people are is not highly correlated to gender. I've had amazing women and men as bosses, I've had the worst individuals as men and women bosses. Some of them have made the national news for their various failures even---both men and women.

I think there are a lot of bad male managers right now because men are preferentially promoted over women. That's it. I don't think competence has much to do with it.

At this point, I don't prejudge competence in my management based on gender. They're roughly all the same population of people, some good, too many bad, most rather middling.
posted by bonehead at 11:25 AM on November 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

deadaluspark: Anyway, just pointing out that groups that connect people with authors who will accept payment to write wholly original research for students willing to pay for it is a booming business, and to act like it doesn't result in people in power who have no fucking clue what they're doing is pretty naive.

While this is tragic on so many levels, I take the small comfort in knowing that at least this system is not as corrupt as Russia, where one take the more direct route and just purchase a fully fabricated education history. In theory, the wealthy know-nothings in the US had to pass some tests in class themselves, so they're know-littles, not absolute know-nothings. (The anecdote about Russia comes from a non-native tour guide in Russia, who was more candid with some daily realities than or native Russian guide; Inside Higher Ed has a note on the apparently rampant corruption in Russia, as part of a larger article on corruption throughout higher ed.)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:28 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Looking back over both wage/employment jobs and independent/freelance stuff, all of my best bosses or leads have been women. And my metrics for best include facets like fairest, hardest/smartest working, easiest to work with and for, least amount of weird political bullshit and general well rounded decent human being parameters.

I've wondered if that's been part of the (un)natural filtering hazing and extreme vetting by trials and tribulations and general sexist bullshit, because in most of these instances we're talking about tech or creative media. I've certainly had women as coworkers but not bosses that were likely terrible to work for, so I'm definitely not trying to say all women are awesome bosses, because I've had at least one.

All things being equal, though, assuming equal competency all of the best and most productive gigs I've had have had women as leads, managers or bosses. There's just so much less stress.

I mean just for starters I've never had a female boss pick up a laptop, scream at it and shatter it on the edge of their desk. I've seen, oh, three different male leads, managers or coworkers do this, at three entirely different jobs. There's a lot less aggressive posturing and confrontational stress and whatnot.

I've also done random freelance IT and/or media/design support for all female offices in fields like non profit art support, media/design or stuff like the regional headquarters/offices of stuff like a YWCA or Girl Scouts that shared space with other similar orgs, and the workflow and work environment was vastly different and generally more pleasant.

At the art nonprofit, it was oddly like it wasn't even work at all. I was there for about a week on this project, and it was like this ongoing amorphous work party where I didn't even really realize that they were all already working and being productive, and there was this sort of borderless flow and multitasking between offices and efforts. (Actually, part of my task list at this gig was to set up printing and printer sharing so they could all print from whatever desktop, laptop or phone to whatever nearest printer to facilitate this kind of flow.)

It was markedly different compared to similar male dominated orgs and offices I've worked in.
posted by loquacious at 11:33 AM on November 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

I am extremely interested in any research or ideas about how competence should be measured or ascertained. So that, to ensure competence in an organization or position, you could say "invest in following ISO standard X for determining standards for measuring ability and skill", and that ISO (or whatever agency) standard is recognized as being, even if complicated, expensive, or little understood, much better than nothing.

Especially if educational credentials are being fabricated, we need a reliable, systematic way to actually discern for ourselves if someone is qualified. It's hard to see past charm anyway, even if you know it's something to watch out for. A formal method, or something to put in place of "follow your gut," would help enormously.

The usual answer is "pay attention", but most people - especially managers - just don't or can't put in the time to do a good job of that (yes, obviously _some_ people do this well, but not enough). Bias is a huge problem, but it's a "tool" people substitute, consciously or unconsciously, when they don't have other tools.

So, who is studying this? What have they found?

I remember hearing about a study that found better results with selecting either grad students or academic faculty when interviewers were forced to use a pre-defined set of not just questions, but ways to grade answers, but I don't remember the particulars, and it was a long time ago.
posted by amtho at 11:41 AM on November 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

amtho, that's the inverse of the parts of the article I found most interesting, about how much incompetence we put up with:
the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.
Most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management. This is especially true for women.
male managers are statistically less likely to bond or connect with their subordinates, and they are relatively more inept at rewarding them for their actual performance.
The article directly linked near this is paywalled, but there's a (clumsily written) Wikipedia page on Alice Eagly:
her theory on role congruity, the belief that prejudice arises when one social groups' stereotype mismatches their valued success in other social roles.
Which dovetails well with Valian's research, which I also recommend.
posted by clew at 11:58 AM on November 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am extremely interested in any research or ideas about how competence should be measured or ascertained.

I don't know, but the older I get the more it seems like some kind of egalitarian and nearly dystopian science fiction solution of brain scanning and probing is maybe a good idea. Somewhere between the Culture novels and Arthur C. Clarke's 3001 where you can quantify learning, intelligence and whether or not someone is an abusive, dangerous shitbird.

Or, say, you did actually learn and integrate this given subject matter because I can identify it and read it right out of your head. Or perhaps even because we could write it there directly.

I will naively presume that such a culture also capable and interested in rehabilitating most cases of dangerous shitbirdism and integrating them freely and productively into culture in society.

At the current rate we're headed towards Douglas Adams' Shoe Event Horizon and the B Ark scenario mixed with a lot of Wall-E and Idiocracy with the rates that people are faking higher education, careers and even entire industries.

The easier solution at this point might be to start talking about the abolishment of (needless) work, UBI/GMI and striving towards some kind of post scarcity, post consumerist sociery and culture to try to remove incompetency or reduce its effects on society.
posted by loquacious at 12:02 PM on November 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

ended up taking a job writing original research papers for people who were pursuing doctorates.

as an aside he should go back and blackmail them all.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:07 PM on November 14, 2017 [15 favorites]

I get that the HBR article is trying to say that corporate culture and contemporary capitalist structure selects for incompetent but charismatic/confident people which turns out to be a certain kind of men. But in doing so it leaves the ideology of corporate management unexamined--it necessarily assumes there exists a corporate society that isn't fundamentally flawed, that doesn't operate by alienation of labor and precisely thus the distortion of how people within it even conceptualize competence and intelligence and so on. I'm not saying this reasoning
(kyriarchy arguments) is necessarily the whole truth, but rather that the article didn't consider this more detailed stuff more critically and reflexively.
posted by polymodus at 12:22 PM on November 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

There are certainly a lot of confident responses in this post!
posted by winna at 12:42 PM on November 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

This may be long, but I just realized this is where I get to tell the story of what has happened to me the last couple of years. It's crazy. And I became sick from going through it because I never understood what happened until it was too late. Really sick. That's why I have the time for commenting on the political threads.

After 10 years of "working for Leah", I finally got to define and create my dream job. There was a complete restructuring of my workplace, and an open competition for all the new mid-management jobs. I was shortlisted for two of the new positions, and accepted the one no-one else wanted. Not because I was humble, but because I saw the potential in starting from scratch, rather than building on a legacy. I supported the new structure even before I got the dream job, and was loyal to a beat, while some of my best friends struggled against it, and even disowned me in national news.

The thing about my new job was that no one talented wanted to be associated with the position, so my staff of 11 were either my own very young and inexperienced former students, or people who had been threatened into a job with me. And this was within academia, so our tasks were research and education. As one of my reluctant staff put it: this was typical of what happened with female managers. As I'd put it now: I got a job that no sane male professor would accept, and I even thought I was lucky.

One of my reluctant staff pensioned himself within a few months, but he did me a favor by making sure he would be replaced by a full-time, tenure tracked scholar. Thanks!

In my view, our first task was to make sure that our first graduates were succesfull, so external partners could see we were worth talking to, so I prioritized the students who were close to graduation. And I created two big business partnerships, including both staff and students. I got one of the most prominent local practitioners in as a guest professor, and I arranged a partnership with the Jazz Academy next door and the textile artists within our institution. Literally within 6 months, our unit had become the most popular within the institution, and our graduating students won international prizes. We had gained some great PhD students and were working to build a research platform. I'm still proud of that.

At the end of the first semester, the head of school came over to me at an exhibition and told me: "this is amazing, I want your job when I'm finished being head of school". I thought that was a clumsy compliment. (Narrator: it wasn't).
I first met this guy while he was a graduate student. At the time I was paying for my PhD as a single mother by working as a journalist and critic, and he wanted me to look at an exhibition he helped to arrange. It was fine, I wrote 30 lines about it, and didn't give it another thought. Then he came to a conference I arranged, about modernity in the 19th century. It was something I did on the side, since my primary subject was and is 20th century radical art, so I didn't really mind when he later stole the basic thesis I'd developed for the conference, which my supervisor thought was profoundly innovative.
Later on we became colleagues. He overtook a course I'd been managing, again with my full accept, and asked me to give a lecture on a subject that bored him. This time I did find it a little annoying when he later started a national research project on a subject that until then had only been mine, without asking me to participate. But OK, I could have done that myself. Or something.
At a party, he slapped my ass. No one has ever done that, even when I was a pretty young thing. I don't have that kind of aura. At that party, I lost very single grain of respect I'd ever had for him earlier, if there was a grain.
And here comes the part that is maybe most relevant to this post: we were both, as equals, at a management course. Here the teachers literally shook their heads at his pronunciations about management, such as "you need to be cruel", while they said I was a natural. And yet he became my boss, and went on to take my dream job, when being the boss became too boring for him.

The thing is, I had no idea this was happening until he actually got appointed to my job a couple of months ago, in spite of him being ridiculously incompetent for it. In my understanding back then, everything was just crazy. I was getting "complaints" that were made up by "colleagues", tasks that were unsolvable, resistance from co-workers who I now know were on his side, and countless other instances of chikane, the worst of which was that my immediate boss refused to hire the professor I'd been promised right in the beginning, meaning I was always working two fulltime positions — 90 hours a week for two years. And all the while I was asking him for help, and even confiding in him because his wife was a friend of mine. (Happily the union was with me all along).

To get back to the main subject: everything this guy did and does is only possible because he is a male. I know hundreds of competent and even brillant male human beings. That's not it. This guy is not and was never competent, neither as a researcher or a leader, but he is personally convinced that he is smarter than the women he takes from, and our surroundings confirm him. When all of this happened I was confused and not certain of my own culpability (remember one of the elements of this was to send false accusations against me), but now as I open up about it, other women are telling similar stories, of this guy, and of other male academics.

To end this on a brighter note: one of the stunts he/they arranged to drive me crazy was a meeting were he and a couple of other leaders were sitting across from my team + two random other colleagues and accusing me of mismanagement. I don't know how I didn't break down, but I didn't. And every single person on my team, including those who had been critical of me to begin with stood up for me and one angry old misogynist even said I was his best boss ever.
And even before I quit that job, I got a much better one. So the sun keeps shining. But it was a terrible experience.
posted by mumimor at 12:57 PM on November 14, 2017 [68 favorites]

Oh my golly, mumimor. I can't even. So sorry you had that experience; so happy you've moved on to a better job.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:12 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Measuring competence is a Hard Problem, outside of very well-defined domains. Setting aside advancement and promotion, just look at hiring. Companies spend billions of dollars a year in total on hiring and "talent acquisition" and dealing with bad hires, yet a lot of hiring-screen practices are no better than tossing a coin.

There's an urban legend* that circulates in IT circles that Google once did a study where it ran candidates through its (notoriously extreme) hiring-screen process and then, once they'd been divided into "hire" and "no hire", hired all the "no hire" people and put them on a team, and they did indistinguishably well from the "hire" group. I have no idea if this is true, but it's entirely believable, and everyone seems to think it's totally believable that it could have happened. That yeah, of course the company with the most resources to throw at this problem, working in a domain that appears at least reasonably quantifiable, is still terrible at it.

AFAIK we're really bad at measuring competence or performance capacity, just as a civilization, and it's crazy given how important it ought to be. The better companies are maybe just the ones who have realized that they're bad at it, it seems.

The best measurement for competence, at least in my experience, seems to be 360-type reviews, or just getting input informally from a broad cross-section of someone's coworker/peers and subordinates, and not relying solely on their manager's opinions. This is still very much imperfect and subject to bias (in particular, a sort of collective groupthink, where the group decides to single out someone for ostracism for no valid fault of their own; I'm sure there are people who have had awful experiences with it, as there are with every performance-measurement scheme), but it's better than most other systems I've used. If you can manage to pull the wool over all your coworkers' eyes all the time, you're probably better than them at something... it's at least a relative measure.

It doesn't really protect against someone intentionally politicking against and undermining one of their colleagues, via what amounts to organizing a conspiracy to tank their reviews and push them out; guarding against that is really hard. The best places I've worked have been the ones that honestly do performance improvement, and not just performance measurement, and slowly build up the trust necessary to keep people from system-gaming. But that's counter to what a lot of managers want to use it for.

* For all I know the story could be true, but I am inclined to believe that it's an urban legend, because years ago I heard an almost-identical story except it was Harvard admissions instead of Google hiring, and the kids whose applications had gotten circular-filed originally did just as well as the admissions officers careful picks. /shrug
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:16 PM on November 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

The question assumes facts not in evidence.
posted by lalaki at 1:24 PM on November 14, 2017

My answer to 'Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?' is that more men attain leadership roles.
While not disputing the main premise- women are more likely to possess the skills necessary to good leadership- I'm more interested in the question
'Why Do So Many Men Become Incompetent Leaders?', and I think the answer to that is that most people are naturally bad managers, as far as I can tell, both women and men.
There's just a lot more men in those positions.

It seems like the traditional approach is 'you're a good worker so you'll be a good boss'.
The idea that just anyone can step in and be an effective boss is not true. Very few people naturally possess good management skills.
(As the article says "... what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.")

In organizations that take management training seriously, all managers are going to be better than the average manager.
I was at IBM for 30 years, and they put extrodinary effort into management training (at least then- not sure about now), and it showed.
I had over two dozen managers, and only one was awful (he was moved off to a more appropriate position), and probably two that were so-so. The rest were Good to Excellent.
What I've seen of Xerox looked similar, and I'm sure I've read of many other places.

But yeah, I'd say that men are much more likely to be overconfident of their skills and not afraid to voice that.
One of my (many) complaints about self-evaluations is that one looks better on these things if you over-estimate your abilities.
The evals are then used to influence promotions.
posted by MtDewd at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

"... for women in the workplace, unwarranted advancement is not really the problem.

Most women work in jobs that are below their competency level, argues Tom Schuller, who frames that point as a corollary to the Peter Principle: "The Paula Principle." His research found that women at all job levels are under-promoted—not just those aspiring to break glass ceilings in executive roles. Schuller's book, The Paula Principle: How and why women work below their level of competence, was released March 9.

This is not news to most women."


I recall Peter followed up his own book by noting that most organizations keep both minorities and women below the level at which they are incompetent, and this is why those organizations can survive -- competent underlings.
posted by hank at 1:46 PM on November 14, 2017 [21 favorites]

The other problem is that incompetent people don't understand how hard a job would be to do (well), while more competent people do, and so a lot of them don't even apply for top - level roles.

There are a few people in my workplace who would be vastly better at my manager's job than he is. But they are all "God no. Why would I want to do management? You have to spend so much time on administration,and focus on everyone else's research instead of just your own, and your top priority becomes your team's welfare so you can't sleep at night for all the thinking about how to best support them". Meanwhile he ignores the admin tasks, is oblivious to anyone's research except his own, advocates only for himself, and doesn't seem to realise that any of that is non-optimal in a leader.
posted by lollusc at 1:50 PM on November 14, 2017 [14 favorites]

I noticed at Microsoft that they always promoted the tallest people, even when it made no sense.
posted by w0mbat at 1:53 PM on November 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

The confidence vs competence is a fascinating concept. While I have no idea whether it is a primary cause of inequality, I've seen it manifested on other areas.

I have been running web training workshops for over 10 years and I've noticed over time that many males appear very confident in their knowledge of the subject being taught, yet often turn out to be less competent than they appear. Conversely, many females downplay their knowledge, appearing less confident, and yet often turn out to be more competent than they portray.

This leads on to a bigger problem (along the lines of the zen koan about emptying you cup so you can learn). People who believe they are deeply knowledgable about a subject are often harder to teach...

I'm not sure if this same effect is true in management... but maybe?
posted by greenhornet at 2:36 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Leadership is the art of getting people to follow you. Confidence is essential to it, competence in decision making is not.

We have to educate girls for more confidence. We deliberately do not do this right now.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:48 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had over two dozen managers, and only one was awful (he was moved off to a more appropriate position), and probably two that were so-so. The rest were Good to Excellent.

and how many of them were women?
posted by poffin boffin at 4:00 PM on November 14, 2017

I have been running web training workshops for over 10 years and I've noticed over time that many males appear very confident in their knowledge of the subject being taught, yet often turn out to be less competent than they appear. Conversely, many females downplay their knowledge, appearing less confident, and yet often turn out to be more competent than they portray.

God, yes. I do occasional web development (and other dev work), and I cannot believe how many times I get talking with a guy who also does this stuff and he makes it sound like he knows everything, while I am realistic about my low level of knowledge and how I'm just dabbling. Then I end up asking him an actual question about how to do something I've been finding tricky that's supposedly in his area of expertise, and he tells me it's easy, and gives me a solution... which I already tried and doesn't work. And I explain why not. And so he suggests something else, which I've tried. And he grabs the keyboard and says "this will only take a minute". And half an hour later he's still flailing around trying all the stuff that I already know doesn't work because... turns out I do know more about the particular subject than he does.
posted by lollusc at 4:04 PM on November 14, 2017 [22 favorites]

Ironmouth, I agree that we fail to educate girls to be confident.

Beyond that, we actively punish any girls or women who do happen to exhibit confidence. We label them arrogant; we sabotage anything they're working on; we undermine them with public humiliation and harassment; and we subject them to all kinds of calumny when we don't erase them outright. If there is a form of education that would successfully counteract all that, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by Weftage at 4:37 PM on November 14, 2017 [38 favorites]

One of the other main issues which the article kind of danced around a little is how perfection is ingrained in women whereas putting oneself out there is ingrained in men. Look at how little girls are coddled - we need to do our projects thorough and the right way to get an A in school. Yet it's the boys who are out getting muddy and doing things halfassed who get rewarded for trying. It's the imbalance of reward for non-equal results from day one, all the way to the workplace.

This made me think of thus yoga class I went to the other day. I got there and even though I've been practicing awhile now and can do all the pretty moves, sat in the back and was chatting with a few other ladies waiting for class to start. Two minutes before class and the last person to come through the door was some swaggering dude, who pushed his way into the front of the class, making everyone around him shuffle their already settled mats and such. That guy spent the next hour mooning us all and warbling all over and was probably the worlds worst at yoga...I say this with all due respect, but it was a horrific sight and right in everyone direct line of view.

Definitely a metaphor for something.
posted by floweredfish at 4:38 PM on November 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

and how many of them were women?

Well, now. That's an interesting question. Not sure what you're really asking.
In IBM, I technically had 19 managers, but in effect I had 16. Two of them were women, and I would rank them in the top 4.
In my current job situation, which includes 2 acquisitions, I have had six managers, 3 of them women. I would rank them maybe 2, 4, and 5.
This is writing as a male, with whatever needs and prejudices I have, and I don't know if that's much of a sample size.

In IBM, there were a lot fewer females in my career path (mainframe computer maintenance), whether self-selected or not, though I did see plenty of sex discrimination along the way.
The managers I had in IBM were way better, as a group, for my needs than in other jobs I have had, and I attribute that to training.
I have seen female managers that seemed to give of a vibe of 'I can be as much of an asshole as any man', and that doesn't seem to be the kind of person I want to work for.
posted by MtDewd at 5:33 PM on November 14, 2017

It's not just that we fail to educate them to be confident, it's that we actively discourage it. For a while all the career advice for women was that the reason women weren't getting promoted is that they weren't asking for promotion. More recent studies have shown, however, that women who actually requested promotions were promoted at lower rates than women who were nominated. It turns out the women showing confidence were seen as "too aggressive". (Can't remember if there was no difference for men or the opposite). The line that women have to negotiate is incredibly fine. The issue isn't that women need to be more confident it's that we have to stop punishing confident women.

In terms of measuring competence there was a study of the levels of average competence of legislatures before and after a law that established gender quotas which is a nice illustration of this. The hypothesis was that women's average competence would decrease, especially since it was already higher than the men's to start with. But it turned out the average competence of the women either stayed the same or actually slightly increased. Mens average competence actually increased though because the men with the lower competency were replace with more competent women. So the overall competency of the body increased as well. On a phone so can't link.i think I was a skeptical of the measurement they used for competency.. something like non inherited income before election, but this was in a country with a much smaller income gap (Iceland?), So probably a better proxy than if the study had been in the US. Also studies of the language of performance reviews show huge differences in the tone and substance for performance reviews between men and women. (Women get told to be more cheerful or friendly A LOT!)
posted by DarthDuckie at 7:39 PM on November 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

Ooops what weftage said.
posted by DarthDuckie at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2017

Woman in the corporate life here-- I'm currently on the edge of either breaking the glass ceiling in my company or bumping my head on it, so I have been thinking about this a lot.

Confidence plays a big role, true. However, women who exhibit confidence without apology are rarely rewarded for it, particularly earlier in their career when it really counts towards being labelled high potential or not. If a woman shows the same kind of confidence that a high-potential man exhibits, she's usually called a bitch. I can't tell you how often I've been asked to smile or be nicer or to tone it down or scolded for hurting someone's feelings. All for things men get away with daily.

Many people who excel in and are drawn to the corporate environment want clear rules about how to progress. They don't like diversity in general because it muddies the water. This isn't conscious. I managed one young man who found it *really* frustrating when a female colleague was promoted over him despite not "being a team player" in the way he had understood was necessary. He really sincerely experienced it like a game where the rules were changed mid-round-- unfair. This is a kind of expression of privilege, but quite a bit more insidious than overt gender stereotyping, imo. It means top management often choose candidates who are playing by the same rules, since it reassures them about their own path forward. There's something we need to do about making these assumptions conscious, but I'm not exactly sure what it is.

Diversity at the top is critical to get diversity in the talent pool. Mentoring is needed to succeed, and we tend inevitably to mentor those who remind us of ourselves. Very difficult to avoid.
posted by frumiousb at 10:07 PM on November 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

Or to quote a friend of mine (tl;dr) "If they're calling me a bitch it means I'm doing something right."
posted by frumiousb at 10:08 PM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

The number of paywalled links in the article was frustrating. A lot of the claims about leadership quality strike me as at best likely to be situationally true (or depending on narrow definition). For example I don't think I've ever met a good leader that wasn't confident, or at least projecting confidence. That's different than vainglorious or egocentric of course.

So, who is studying this? What have they found?

You can try Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) or other behavioral economists for one view, specifically "it's tough."

Kahneman got his start evaluating Israeli army recruits. In one case he found a small number (five or so, IIRC) objective questions was as good as you could do, and that was better but not much better than chance.

I would expect--especially in something as nebulous as "leadership" or "management"--that too much objectivity just becomes pointless credentialism.
posted by mark k at 11:25 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Google's "notoriously extreme" hiring process didn't measure for job competency; it measured for puzzle skills. Maybe for coding skills. But not "can you show up on time, work with a diverse pack of coworkers, get projects done by deadline, fill out paperwork as needed so other people can do their jobs too?"

Google was looking for technical expertise, not general job skills, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if their "no hire" applicants (or, the ones who passed the first wave of interviews) had enough other skills to more than cover for the lack of whatever specific details they were checking for.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:48 PM on November 14, 2017

Every company I have worked for has claimed an interest in promoting diversity, and it has still been incredibly challenging to progress for women and people of color. At this point I have received endless trainings on how to be perfect, and still experience the exact same feedback frumiousb describes. (“Hurting feelings” by expressing the exact same questions and skepticism as the man next to me, it’s amazing). The good news is that I have stoppped internalizing the feedback and instead recognize it as the sexism it is, but the bad news is that bosses reward reaction to their crappy feedback.

The solution for organizations who genuinely care is just to have a quota and promote more women and people of color. They need to make sure there are enough at the top to change the culture though, because women are typically ignored/belittled/demonized if there aren’t enough of them. I refuse to believe the “pipeline problem” that there aren’t enough competent women and people of color, because I have witnessed the Paula Principle in action every single day of my career.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:23 AM on November 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

There's something we need to do about making these assumptions conscious, but I'm not exactly sure what it is.

In my organization, we have long lists of competencies/skills published for each level, including the transition to management. Hiring is done very strictly institutionally according to those competencies. Job descriptions and performance reviews use the exact sample language. There are an ecosystem of small training firms happy to offer training in how to meet those competencies. So the paths forward are generally clear, and the "ground rules" are both public knowledge and enforced strongly by HR and our unions.

It's not, in the slightest, a good system. Hiring takes forever and has been getting worse. I would not recommend any workplace copy it. However, the number of female managers has risen from 39% to 47% in the past decade, including up to the C-level equivalents. Clear rules, for applicants, for the hiring and evaluation processes, even for the training available, do make a real difference.
posted by bonehead at 5:45 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another woman in the corporate world here; I've broken my glass ceiling (yay!) which has brought its own questions. Many of which I expected thanks to reading so many books as a kid and studying literature formally later on. Of course, the problem with literature is the same as in the corporate world – patriarchy. Lots of promising young things (objectification) getting quashed, stifled, silenced, broken, dying, tragic destinies alongside/in support of/reflected by men. You don't see many talented young women (with that phrasing) in charge of their individuation in works of art. Older women? *crickets*

One main trick in changing my own point of view is, "worrying that I'll be quashed is a millennia-old trope for women. What would something different look like? How can I work with what exists? Do I confront/subvert/disrupt/ignore/further analyze?" (Can you tell I work in quality assurance? :) )

I am a pretty confident person, always have been (thanks to awesome teachers), but that's not how or why I succeeded. There's a good dose of luck, a huge dose of practically-insane risk-taking, and a developed skill of seriously not giving a fuck and taking up my space as an individual. I used to be shy and soft-spoken, still am, but the difference is that before, I would take everyone as if they were behaving in good faith. Everyone. Now it takes some convincing before I do that, and if I get convinced that someone is acting in bad faith, they get my ice cold freeze-out. The only behaviors from them that pass the wall are constructive ones, but I keep an eye out for the hidden dagger.

That was the hardest lesson for me to learn – how to deal with bad faith actors without becoming one. It's not something that lends itself to easy explanation.

And regarding the practically-insane risk-taking. Yeah. Closely related to being able to take them: being single and childless. The only life I'm risking is mine. Yesterday I wrote a comment about living in hotels as a freelancer in a then-foreign country for which I didn't have citizenship. Box also checked: getting my Masters degree in comparative literature when I had a job as a QA analyst in IT. Also checked: transferring to a big, expensive city I had always promised myself I would never transfer to, my place in the former city never selling, being unable to find renters for three years, and living on a net negative income for two years of that until quitting my old job and lining up a new one with a better salary. Wheeheheeeee omigod how could I ever recommend any of that to a sane person. "Hey yeah! Change countries, be a freelancer while living in hotels because you can't rent normally, which also means you can't get citizenship, wait for an apartment to fall out of the sky because you write a blog, get a degree that is generally considered the polar opposite of what you want to work in, transfer to a major city from one that has real estate agents widely known to work as an organized mafia so your previous home won't sell (because they trash serious offers until the price is lowered and the owner is desperate to sell so their construction buddies snag places, fix them up, then rent them out through the same real estate agent), and oh! be sure to QUIT YOUR JOB at the worst of your financial issues!"

It definitely helps with the not giving a fuck though. I can look bad-faith folk in the eye and think, lol, try me.
posted by fraula at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2017 [8 favorites]

I can't help but think that in order to trump a mediocre man, a woman has to be more perfect than perfect, have a halo over her head and shit gold like a Lannister. Mediocre women end up going nowhere. Pretty good women...probably end up going nowhere unless they get lucky. You'd better be extraordinarily awesome AND not be a "bully broad" AND not ruffle feathers AND not be *too* confident or *too* full of yourself and be just the right amount of apologetic and feather-smoothing and blah blah...and who can live up to that?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:40 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't help but think that in order to trump a mediocre man....

All that, yes. But the only way I've seen women get ahead is for men to let them. One guy, well-placed, puts his finger on the scales and you're in or you're out. And it doesn't always need to be a well-placed guy. One trick that I used occasionally at a previous employer was just mentioning a male name when I needed leverage. It always seemed to help though these things are hard to A/B test, but you can be damn sure that I knew what I was doing when I did it. Usually this was after hard work and data and merits hadn't gotten the results I needed in order to do my job. It went something like this, "So I was talking to 'Dave' about [project] and it would be great to be able to add [resource] to move this along, can you help us with that?" Never mind that 'Dave' and I talked for 30 seconds at the microwave and that I didn't actually link the conversation with Dave to any particular analysis or discussion of the resource. Also note my appeal to "white knightedness" with the "can you help?" I didn't always get my way but I did notice that when mentioning any male name I would get interrupted less and allowed to at least finish my thought and I'd feel like I had actually been heard. It's a super fun game to play. If you must, you can cultivate your male ally, Dave, ahead of time by invoking the name of the male who you need to go through to get the thing done. "Hey Dave, I was talking to [supervisor dude] about project and was thinking that this [resource] would help us get the job done. Would that be a help to you?"
posted by amanda at 12:06 PM on November 15, 2017 [14 favorites]

Ooh, that reminds me of how I get better results if I can get a man to ask whatever it is for me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:45 PM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I went to a women's professional development event today that was very relevant to this thread.

One of the senior women who spoke at it had a great start to her talk. She said, "I used to have a boss who was not great at his job. I was great at mine. I was more competent at literally everything he did than he was. Eventually, I took his job. Now I'm in charge".

That made me happy.

Also, two women in my department who had not been supported by management for promotion went over his head and applied for promotion anyway, and we just learned yesterday that they were both successful. One of them briefly changed her email signature to "Firstname Lastname, [Senior job title] now, IN YOUR FACE."

That also made me happy.
posted by lollusc at 1:27 AM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Well, now. That's an interesting question. Not sure what you're really asking."

Presumably they're asking how many of your managers were women, in a thread about managers and gender.
posted by XtinaS at 7:21 AM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

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