Real men don’t make mistakes
We’ve written before about the hazards of being a woman in a gender-incongruent career [like construction]. If you make a mistake, your credibility plummets beyond recovery. New research says men suffer this same fate, but for them, it’s bad if they make a mistake in a gender-congruent career [like construction], too. If a woman in a gender-incongruent career makes a mistake, it’s expected–according to these researchers and forgiveness is ahead. Not so for the male leader.
Researchers asked almost 300 undergraduates to read fictional employee emails that discussed a leader’s behavior. They then were told to imagine they worked for this leader and complete a set of questionnaires while maintaining that mindset. In the scenarios, the leader was either male or female and worked in either a construction (stereotypically male) or nursing (stereotypically female) environment.
And here is some of what they found:
Leaders who committed errors were perceived (regardless of gender) as less task competent, less relationship competent, and less desirable to work for than leaders who did not make errors.
Male leaders who committed errors in a gender-congruent job (like construction) were seen as less task competent, less relationship competent and less desirable to work for than women leaders in construction jobs (gender-incongruent).
It’s an intriguing study for us since just last year we wrote about how men in construction jobs who report to women have lower salaries and lower prestige than men in construction who report to men. It’s sort of like dueling expert witnesses. How do you figure out who to believe?
Without getting into the research design and generalizability of one study versus the next–it is likely a good thing to presume that mistakes are going to hurt you with observers in terms of credibility. Once a mistake is made, what matters most is how you respond to having been wrong. These researchers suggest that you correct perceptions of those around you by redoubling your efforts on the domain in which you made the error.
For example, if you commit a relationship error (like losing your temper or showing disregard for a subordinate’s point of view)–it likely won’t mend fences if you focus on task competency. Instead, apologize and then, back up your apology with a change in your relational behaviors. For example, demonstrate increased interest in subordinate’s opinions, and show more support and consideration in general.
Whether male or female, you are not just a leader. You are a person as well. Take responsibility for your errors, apologize sincerely and then visibly correct your behavior. And of course, these aren’t just a good idea, these are the interpersonal standards that the observing public expects, including your jurors and your clients. If you alienate either one of them, you lose.
Thoroughgood, CN, Sawyer, KB, & Hunter, ST (2012). Real men don’t make mistakes: Investigating the effects of leader gender, error type, and the occupational context on leader error perceptions. Journal of Business Psychology.