Part of the series “Today’s True Leadership”
In my work as a leadership trainer and a career success coach for women over 11 years, it’s become abundantly clear that the quality of one’s decision-making is not only a critical factor in her professional success and impact, but also reflects a wide range of influences that we’re typically unaware of, including core values, internal preferences, societal influences, social abilities, cultural training, neurobiology, comfort with authority and power, and much more.
To learn more about decision-making in general, and key differences between the way men and women make decisions in particular, I asked Dr. Therese Huston to share her insights. Therese was the founding director of what is now the Center for Faculty Development at Seattle University and has spent the past fifteen years helping smart people make better decisions. She has written for the New York Times NYT +0.33% and Harvard Business Review, and her first book, Teaching What You Don’t Know, was published by Harvard University Press. Her current book How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices “pries open” stereotypes about women’s decision-making and serves as an authoritative guide to help women navigate the workplace and their everyday life with greater success and impact.
Kathy Caprino: Therese, how do men and women show very different behaviors when they’re making decisions under stress?
Therese Huston: A far too common perception is that when women are stressed, they become emotional and fall apart?? , but when men are stressed, they remain calm and clear-headed. If you subscribe to either of these beliefs, you’re probably going to turn to men, not women, when the pressure is on and an important decision needs to be made.
Neuroscientists are finding both of these popular notions are wrong.
First, men aren’t as steady as it seems. Mara Mather, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, and Ruud van den Bos, a neurobiologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, independently found that when people are under stress, men become more eager to take risks. They’ve found that men become laser-focused on rewards when their heart rates and cortisol levels run high, even if that reward has only a tiny chance of materializing. When the pressure is on and there’s the glimmer of a highly rewarding outcome, men take gambles, more and bigger gambles than they would ordinarily choose.
Do women under duress feel as tempted? Usually not. Put most women in the same stressful situation, bump up their cortisol levels and ask them to make the same decision, and you’ll see something rather different. Their heads swivel to the risks. Mather and van den Bos found when women’s bodies were undergoing a strong stress reaction, they took more time weighing the contingencies and were more interested in smaller rewards they could count on. Rather than falling apart, women bring unique strengths to decision-making. Women tend to become risk-alert under stress and go for the smaller wins that are more guaranteed.
Is one strategy better than the other? It is better to be risk-hungry or risk-alert? You could argue either way, but this provides a new reason to have both men and women at the top level when high-stakes decisions are being made. We need both genders in the room to balance one another out when tensions are running high.
Caprino: In your book, you talk about a phenomenon you call the “dogsled problem” around women’s leadership and decision-making. What is it, and why does it matter?
Huston: I love that phrase. One of the women I interviewed used it to describe what she sees happening in business and law, even in the art world. She likens the division of decision-making in the professional world to dogsled racing. She believes that women are welcome to make all of the behind-the-scenes decisions in an organization to ensure the team makes it to the starting line. Women can assemble the team, work out disagreements among team members who are nipping at one another, decide who needs more training and who has to pull more weight.
But on race day, when the cameras and spectators show up, she said, it’s men who take the reins, not the women who orchestrated everything.
And that’s a problem because everyone expects men to make the visible, crucial decisions that win the race. We’ve become accustomed to giving men, not women, the credit. Research shows that when a group solves a problem successfully and it’s ambiguous who deserves credit for the key contribution, both men and women typically assume it was a man who played a key leadership role.
Some organizations are criticized for being “boys’ clubs,” and that’s certainly a problem, but if those boys’ clubs respond by only putting women in support roles, it’s still a problem. We need to stop seeing women as people who merely get the team to the starting line. We need to start seeing them as leaders on race day.
Caprino: Some believe that the strength of women’s decisions lies in “women’s intuition.” What reservations do you have about that phrase?
Huston: Research suggests that women don’t rely on intuition more often than men. When most people say, “women’s intuition,” they’re suggesting that women make their decisions based on some inexplicable feelings, on some inner hunch.
But research shows that women are just as data-driven and analytical as men, if not more so. In a sample of 32 studies that looked at how men and women thought about a problem or made a decision, 12 of the studies found that women adopted an analytical approach more often than men, meaning that women systematically turned to the data, while men were more inclined to go with their gut, hunches, or intuitive reactions. The other 20 studies? They found no difference between men and women’s thinking styles. Not a single study, not one, found that women tended to be more intuitive in their decision-making styles.
So a strength women bring to decision-making is their analytical perseverance and perspicacity. But as my interviewees often explained, they often started with a hunch and followed up on it with careful research.
Is the phrase “women’s analysis” going to catch on? Probably not. Perhaps one of our readers can come up with something better.
Caprino: Why does decision-making advice for men often backfire for women?
Huston: Brilliant books have been published on decision-making, books that I love because they explore clever research and reveal fascinating truths.
But some of practical advice in these books is great for men and terrible for women. Consider these recommendations, both taken from best-sellers: “Whenever possible, get everyone to agree on a decision,” or “Take more time to consider a fuller array of options.” These are valuable pieces of advice if your problem is that you’re overconfident in your own assessment of the situation, if you tend to leap before you look. But overconfidence plagues men more often than it plagues women.
How does this kind of advice backfire for women? When a male executive adopts these strategies, it might look refreshing, but it doesn’t come off that way by a female in the same role. Women are already seen as being too collaborative and insufficiently decisive. A Pew study in 2015 found that of the three qualities valued most in leaders – honesty, intelligence, and decisiveness – people thought men had the biggest lead over women in decisiveness. Respondents agreed that men and women were equally intelligent, but many thought men appeared more decisive. So if a woman in the C-suite says, “Let’s not decide until everyone is on board,” it will be taken as confirming evidence she’s dragging her feet.
Caprino: How do women tend to raise the collective intelligence of a group that’s trying to solve a problem?
Huston: This is a fascinating line of research, led by Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University. Woolley looked at something called the “c factor” or collective intelligence of a group. She and her colleagues gave teams challenging problems to solve, such as how to allocate resources or solve a fuzzy moral quandary, the kinds of problems many of us face at work. Then the researchers scored the solutions the groups generated.
A group’s collective intelligence wasn’t predicted by the average intelligence of its group members, and it wasn’t driven by the IQ of the team’s smartest member. Woolley and her colleagues found that the single most important factor predicting a group’s collective intelligence was its social sensitivity?? . Teams that generated the best solutions to problems had members who could successfully read the non-verbal cues of their teammates. When a team made a complex decision, it benefited from people who were tuned in to group dynamics as well as the pros and cons of each option on the table.
How does this relate to gender? Women tend to have higher social sensitivity than men. And several researchers have found that teams with a higher proportion of women often reach better decisions and generate more novel solutions. There is a caveat here – if you add women to a group and their input is ignored, they can be the most empathic employees in the company and they won’t have an impact.
Can men read non-verbal cues? Absolutely. It’s a learned skill, not a skill that women are born with. Studies show that if men are sufficiently motivated, their social sensitivity scores are high. There’s also the issue of how much power one possesses in a meeting. Reading other people’s emotions is a skill that subordinates are more likely to demonstrate than supervisors.
The reasons why women have greater social sensitivity is complex, but if you want to make a team smarter, add women and genuinely listen to them.
Caprino: Why is it critical that we change how we think about women as decision-makers?
Huston: There’s growing evidence that when women occupy multiple leadership roles, smarter decisions are made. In February, the Peterson Institute analyzed the profits of 21,980 firms worldwide and found that companies where women held 30% of the top leadership roles earned 15% more, on average, than companies with no women on their boards or in their C-suites. With more female senior leaders, they found superior firm performance.
To be clear, the Peterson Institute didn’t find that having a female CEO led to greater profits. What predicted success was having multiple female leaders, not just one, in the top decision-making roles.
And, of course, it’s hard to know which came first. Are market-savvy companies doing everything right, including promoting women, or does the decision-making dynamic change once several women are genuinely included? The former might be true, but converging evidence also suggests the latter.
“We need more women on crucial decision-making teams, not only because it’s better for women. We need more women because it’s better for our decisions."
For more information, visit ThereseHustonAuthor.com
Read the original article on Forbes.