How Women Can Escape the Likability Trap

Powerful women know how to flip feminine stereotypes to their advantage.

There has been a lot of talk recently in the political arena about the likability trap for women: Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.

What you haven’t heard about much is the way successful women overcome this form of gender bias. I have interviewed about 200 women over the years in my research on gender and the workplace, and they all employ a similar set of strategies for escaping the likability trap. One former chief executive described hers this way: “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.” She embraced a stereotype that typically holds women back — the office mom — but flipped it around, using its momentum to propel herself forward. I call it gender judo.

Why do women need to do this? Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.

This version of masculinity maps perfectly onto what we expect from leaders, in business and politics. Women in leadership need to display these “masculine” qualities, but when they do they risk being seen as bad women, and also as bad people. So savvy women learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).

Other research finds that women make a similar finesse while negotiating. Women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding. So they use “softeners” in conversation. (“It wasn’t clear to me whether this salary offer represents the top of the pay range.”) When Sheryl Sandberg negotiated for what no doubt was an outlandishly high compensation package at Facebook, she told Mark Zuckerberg: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” She turned a salary negotiation (competitive and ambitious) into a touching testimony of team loyalty.

Isn’t this all a bit revolting? Here’s what works for men negotiating for a higher salary: I have another offer, and I need you to match it. Why should women have to do something different?

They shouldn’t.

When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotype that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.

For women who want to master this strategy, the first step is to behave as assertively as comes naturally and see what happens. If you find your effectiveness jeopardized because you being yourself triggers dislike, then you need to decide whether overcoming the backlash is worth the sacrifice.

If it is, try doing something masculine in a feminine way. Think of femininity as a tool kit, and choose something that feels authentic to you. But don’t choose deference. One study found that women who used a submissive conversational style, apologizing and hedging, just undercut themselves.

The most common anti-backlash strategy I found in the women I interviewed was to mix authoritativeness and warmth. “I got feedback I was intimidating, so I would make sure that I got to know people, and before a meeting I would share something personal to make myself more approachable,” one woman, who is now a chief executive, told me.

Some women use metaphors to recode behavior that is coded as masculine. A woman responsible for winning new clients at a major consulting firm, where rainmakers were called “hunters,” told me she rejected that label. “I always said: ‘No, no, no, I’m a gardener. I grow things,’” she told me. Just another dame who loves to nurture.

Another tried-and-true move is what anthropologists call gender display. “For me, it’s pink lipstick,” one woman told me. She is the lone female member of the board of a public company.

In the most sophisticated form of this strategy, powerful women create an entirely new narrative, softening their hard-driving personas by highlighting that they are also communal, selfless mothers. A brilliant recent example is M.J. Hegar’s 2018 congressional campaign video. In it, a battered door — all that’s left of the helicopter she was shot down in while on an Air Force rescue mission — is tucked behind her dining table, where she sits contentedly with her family.

This is all a lot of hard work, and it’s work that men don’t have to do. Men, to be successful, just need to master and display masculine-coded traits; women, to be successful, need to master both those and some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity. That’s a lot trickier.

What’s the solution? Organizations have to be vigilant about challenging the biases that force women to do this in the first place. The workplace is often structured in ways that reward behavior that’s considered socially appropriate in white men but socially inappropriate in women and people of color. This provides an invisible escalator for white men.

The goal is not to empower women to be as emotionally tone deaf and grabby as men are sometimes encouraged to be. Instead, we should work to make sure that both men and women are rewarded for displaying empathy or a willingness to put the common good above self-interest. These qualities have long been undervalued in work and in political life because they have been coded as feminine, and the world needs much more of them.

Half of 10 Biggest Federal Law Agencies Lack Permanent Chiefs

Number of acting heads produces a lack of leadership stability at agencies that enforce critical parts of Trump agenda

Five of the nation’s 10 largest federal law-enforcement agencies are currently operating with only interim heads amid an unprecedented long-term leadership vacuum that even some of the president’s congressional allies say is untenable.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons all lack permanent heads.

Several of the agencies—ATF, DEA and ICE—have been without Senate-approved leadership for the entirety of Donald Trump’s term in office. That is the case despite unified Republican control of the Senate and presidency during that period, which typically leads to easier confirmation scenarios.

Because of opposition by some gun-rights groups, presidents of both parties have struggled to get ATF nominees through the Senate—but Mr. Trump has never even tapped anyone for the job. The leader of the Bureau of Prisons need not be Senate-confirmed, but even so it has only an acting director.

CBP has been run by an interim leader since mid-April because its current commissioner was tapped to run the entire Department of Homeland Security—as an acting secretary.

In part, the situation reflects Mr. Trump’s management style. He has said he prefers keeping people in “acting” roles rather than going through the Senate nominating process.

I sort of like ‘acting,’” Mr. Trump said earlier this year. “It gives me more flexibility.”

He is giving himself plenty of that. While vacancies are common toward the end of a presidential administration, the sheer number of them across the Trump administration as well as the turnover in crucial jobs, particularly at prestigious law-enforcement agencies, is without precedent, according to Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.

Of the roughly 700 key positions requiring Senate approval that his organization tracks, only about 400 of them have been filled with a Senate-confirmed official. Some are extremely high profile, like the secretaries of defense and DHS.

But the result is a lack of leadership stability at several agencies that enforce critical parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda. The Drug Enforcement Administration has a prominent role in curbing opioid abuse, a priority of the Trump administration. ATF is a central player in combating gang violence and illegal firearms trafficking, other law-enforcement priorities of the president.

And CBP and ICE both play major roles in enforcing immigration law, the centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s domestic agenda. The president often talks of what he says is a “crisis at the border.”

Steadiness in leadership at government agencies with police powers may be especially crucial. “A law-enforcement organization is dealing with some of the most serious powers of the state and that is the power that involves people’s liberty,” said Mr. Stier.

Running a government with so many vacancies and “acting” leaders at high levels also bypasses the Senate’s constitutionally mandated “advice and consent” role in approving senior leadership at many agencies—and, similarly to Mr. Trump’s recent defiance of House subpoenas, shows little regard for Congress as a coequal branch of government.

“One of the purposes of the constitutional system we have is the checks and balances. The Senate, one of their critical roles, is to be able to in essence vet the senior leadership of our government—choices that the president is making,” Mr. Stier said. “That absolutely is a challenge to the system of government that we have.”

Veterans of government service note that it is difficult to be an effective manager with “acting” in your title.

To effectively lead an agency, you need as much authority and gravitas as you can muster. These are difficult jobs. Senate confirmation definitely helps,” said Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and prosecutor who was successfully nominated to lead both the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency under two Republican presidents.

“It is enormously important that the people that work for you in that agency view you, not as an ‘acting,’ but as somebody who is going to be around for a while,” said Mr. Bonner, who was confirmed to four separate positions by the U.S. Senate. “If you’re not a confirmed head of an agency … you’re not going to be able to command as much respect and attention from your own people and from other agencies whose cooperation is important.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ally of Mr. Trump and the chairman of the committee that considers nominees for the DEA and AFT, said he doesn’t approve of the long-term vacancies created by the Trump administration.

“It bothers me. Why aren’t they doing it? They should,” Mr. Graham said about nominating permanent heads for those agencies. The South Carolina Republican is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department and all its law-enforcement agencies—which include the FBI, DEA, AFT, U.S. Marshals Service and Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The lack of any nominees has created a messy situation at the top of several agencies—requiring tricky legal maneuvering to even name an acting successor.

ATF is currently being led by Reggie Lombardo, who holds the title of “acting deputy director.” Ms. Lombardo, who took office earlier this month after the departure of her predecessor, cannot hold the title of acting director because of a quirk in federal law caused by the lengthy vacancy and the lack of a nominee.

The current acting head of the DEA, Uttam Dhillon, had to be transferred from his White House job into a Justice Department post first—to qualify for the appointment as acting administrator because of another requirement in the agency secession rules. Mr. Dhillon was involved in the search for a DEA head while he was at the White House.

And Mr. Trump purged the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security last month in a clash over the direction of the agency. He named CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan as the acting DHS secretarybypassing a law that required the acting job to go to the undersecretary for Management, Claire Grady. Ms. Grady eventually resigned to resolve the issue—clearing the path for Mr. McAleenan to become acting DHS secretary.

Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? | Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic | TEDxUniversityofNevada

There is a pathological mismatch between the qualities that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. Based on research on the psychology of leadership, Chamorro-Premuzic shows that if leaders were selected on competence rather than confidence, humility rather than charisma, and integrity rather than narcissism, we would not just end up with more competent leaders, but also more women leaders. In fact, he argues, the main obstacle preventing competent women from becoming leaders is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics. He is the Chief Talent Scientist at Manpower Group, co-founder and CEO of DeeperSignals and Metaprofiling, and Professor of Business Psychology at both University College London, and Columbia University. He has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics, and lectured at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, Johns Hopkins, IMD, and INSEAD, as well as being the CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems. Dr. Tomas has published 10 books and over 150 scientific papers, making him one of the most prolific social scientists of his generation. His work has received awards by the American Psychological Association and the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology, to which he is a Fellow. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

What Motivates Mitch McConnell?

The Senate majority leader has become one of the few unambiguous winners of the Trump presidency so We look at whether his gains have come with a cost.

.. Over the past decade, the Senate Republican leader has emerged as a skilled legislative warrior, obstructing President Barack Obama’s agenda and enabling President Trump’s. But what does Mitch McConnell himself actually believe in?

 

.. Background reading: