Do men and women lead differently in the workplace? Based on much of the research, the short answer is “yes.” Although the gender leadership differences often align with the stereotype that women lead with a more interpersonal style and men with a more task-oriented style, it appears that gender does play a role in leadership style and preferences.
Because a leader’s success often depends upon their ability to gain the support and cooperation of people who frequently have competing priorities or conflicting goals, OnPoint Consulting wanted to understand what gender differences, if any, exist in how leaders use influence. To help answer this question, we used a 360° feedback questionnaire to collect data on the influencing skills of 223 leaders (116 men and 107 women) across organizations and industries.
While the data pointed to some significant differences in the approaches men and women use to gain others’ buy-in and support, we also uncovered some surprising similarities. The following is a summary of our findings.
Most Effective Influence Tactics
Our previous research on influence identified 11 influencing tactics used by the most effective managers. We then grouped these tactics according to their effectiveness in gaining others’ support and commitment—most effective, moderately effective, and least effective tactics. The four tactics that are most effective in gaining commitment from others are:
- Reasoning: Providing logical arguments and factual evidence to show that a request or proposal is feasible and relevant for important objectives.
- Inspiring: Appealing to a person’s values, ideals, or emotions or generating enthusiasm to encourage them to take action.
- Consulting: Asking a person to suggest improvements to a proposal or to help plan a proposed activity or change.
- Collaborating: Offering to provide relevant resources or assistance to make it easier for a person to carry out a request or implement a proposed change.
So, do men and women use the most effective influencing tactics to the same extent? Based on the leaders we studied, we found that two of the tactics, Reasoning and Collaborating, are used to the same extent by both men and women.
Reasoning is the most frequently used tactic by both men and women when influencing bosses, colleagues, and direct reports. There is no significant difference between men and women in the use of this tactic. Reasoning behaviors such as explaining why a requested task is necessary, explaining why a proposed change or project will be cost-effective, and providing evidence that a proposed activity will be successful are used to an equal extent by both men and women.
We also found that Collaborating is among the more frequently used tactics by both men and women, and both genders use the behaviors associated with this tactic to the same extent with bosses, colleagues, and direct reports. Examples of these behaviors include offering to show a person how to do the requested task, offering to help a person do the task, and offering to provide resources needed to do the task.
These findings are somewhat surprising if you believe that men lead with a more task-oriented focus and women with a more interpersonal approach. If this were the case, you’d expect to find that men use Reasoning (a logical, data-oriented tactic) more frequently while women typically turn to Collaborating (a more relationship-oriented tactic). However, our study found no significant gender leadership differences in the use of these two tactics.
There are, however, some significant gender leadership differences in the use of the other two most effective tactics: Inspiring and Consulting.
Although Inspiring was among the top five most frequently used tactics by both men and women overall, we found that women use Inspiring significantly more frequently than men with colleagues and direct reports. With bosses, however, men and women use these appeals to the same extent. Examples of behaviors associated with Inspiring include describing a clear, inspiring vision or making an inspiring presentation to arouse enthusiasm for a proposed activity or change.
While Consulting was among the more frequently used tactics by both men and women overall, we found that women use Consulting more frequently than men when influencing bosses and direct reports. With colleagues, however, men and women use Consulting to the same extent. Examples of behaviors associated with Consulting include asking for ideas to improve a preliminary plan/proposal or encouraging the person to express any concerns about a proposed change or new initiative.
Given that female leaders are often described as having a more participative, inspirational management style than men, you would expect to find that women use Inspiring and Consulting strategies more often than men across the board. However, we found no difference between men and women in the use of Inspiring with bosses and no difference in the use of Consulting with colleagues.
Inspiring strategies are generally less effective with bosses than with colleagues and direct reports, and it appears that both men and women recognize this. Women, however, better leverage this tactic with their colleagues and direct reports, and men may not be taking full advantage of this tactic.
Both men and women often rely on Consulting when influencing colleagues; however, men may be missing opportunities to use this tactic with their direct reports. Consulting is especially appropriate when the influencer has the authority to plan a task or make a change, but relies on the other person to help carry out the work or implement the change. The authority to assign work and make changes is greatest in a downward direction and least in an upward direction. This suggests that while women use Consulting effectively with direct reports, they may be at risk of overusing this tactic with their bosses.
Moderately Effective and Least Effective Tactics
For the most part, men and women use the moderately effective and the least effective influencing tactics to the same extent. There are, however, some interesting gender leadership differences between their approaches. Three influencing tactics stand out in particular:
- Appraising: Explaining how carrying out a request or supporting a proposal will benefit the person personally or will help to advance the person’s career.
- Recognizing: Using praise and flattery before or during an influence attempt.
- Legitimizing: Establishing the legitimacy of a request or verifying that you have the authority to make it.
Women use Appraising significantly more with direct reports than men use this tactic. On the other hand, men use Appraising significantly more than women when influencing their bosses. Women may have the edge here because Appraising is one of the tactics that is not typically effective in upward influence attempts but is more effective with colleagues and direct reports. Our research also found that women use Recognizing and Legitimizing more frequently than men when influencing their colleagues and direct reports.
Legitimizing was one of the top five most frequently used tactics overall by both men and women, which is unfortunate considering it’s one of the least effective influencing tactics. This strategy should only be used when your authority is questioned or when you are joining a group who is not aware of your expertise and track record. Our study suggests that leaders (particularly female leaders) may be at risk of overusing this tactic. The fact that women use Legitimizing more than men may be an indication that their authority is being challenged more often or they feel they have to work harder to demonstrate their competence.
Overall, we found more similarities than differences between male and female leaders when it comes to gaining others’ support and commitment to plans, proposals, and ideas. Most of the gender differences we identified involve influence attempts with colleagues and direct reports, suggesting that both men and women use very similar approaches when making upward influence attempts.
Some of the gender differences we identified in this study are consistent with the conventional thinking that female leaders tend to focus more on relationships and male leaders tend to focus more on the task or end result. For example, we found that women use the “softer” tactics of Inspiring, Consulting, Appraising, and Recognizing more frequently than men. These four tactics all involve a high degree of interpersonal skills and relationship savvy, which is consistent with the theory that women are more “in touch” with the relationship side of leadership.
However, other findings from this study are less consistent with the theory that women use a more participative management style and men use a more results-driven style. For example, both men and women use Collaborating to the same extent and both men and women use Consulting to the same extent with colleagues. We also found that men and women use the tactic of Pressuring (using demands, threats, warnings, or frequent check-ins) to the same degree.
It’s also clear that influencing tactics are critically important to all leaders. Successful leaders learn how to utilize the most effective tactics rather than leaning on their authority to deliver results. By laying the groundwork for influencing others and deploying the right approach at the right time, agile leaders can connect with people more effectively to secure buy-in and enhance accountability.