Saturday, June 24, 2006

Gun or rope?

A Tyrant Boss, Even Without the Y Chromosome


THE cold stare, the caustic insult and the bug-eyed explosion are among the most easily accessible techniques for male bigwigs to humiliate and frighten underlings. Each method is in keeping with alpha behavior, and fits of rage in particular are expected of bosses in many organizations. You can't be Zeus without hurling some lightning.

But the nasty boss in the movie "The Devil Wears Prada," which opens on Friday, sets up an attack on a would-be employee with a particularly mean-girl jab: "You have no style or sense of fashion."

"I think that really depends on —— ..." the young woman stutters in response.

"No, no," the boss, played by Meryl Streep, cuts in. "That wasn't a question."

Anyone who has worked in the fashion racket or at a glossy magazine recognizes this kind of cruelty, and the types who perpetrate it, from their Chanel suits down to their pointy Manolos. They are in part products of a corporate culture that demands both a sense of design and a boxer's killer instinct to stay ahead.

Yet female tyrants can spread a different brand of misery than the more common male variety, and research provides some clues to how those differences arise, and in what circumstances they are most apparent. The very tensions women encounter as they rise through an organization — and the techniques they use to do so — give them weapons they can use to promote others, as well as cut them down.

"If women navigate skillfully, not only do they advance but they leave a positive mark on the entire culture of the organization," said Debra E. Meyerson, an organizational behavior researcher at Stanford University and author of the book "Tempered Radicals," about outsiders who change organizations from within. "But if they don't navigate well, they get frustrated, and stalled, and often wind up reinforcing the values they had hoped to challenge."

Social scientists doubted for years whether there was any significant difference between men and women leaders. The overwhelmingly masculine culture of most workplaces, at least through the 1970's, shaped behavior in similar ways among those who rose through the ranks.

According to this view, the only variety was in individual personalities. Some women would display the combativeness of Margaret Thatcher, some men the grace of Abe Lincoln.

But today women run about a quarter of the country's small and midsize firms, and research suggests that gender roles can account for slight differences in their leadership styles, as compared with men.

In an authoritative 2003 analysis of 45 studies in a wide range of organizations, from schools to hospitals to financial companies, Alice Eagly of Northwestern University and Marloes van Engen of Tilberg University in the Netherlands found that women managers tended to be — on average — more collaborative than men, more encouraging to subordinates, more likely to include them in decisions. Men were more likely to lead by top-down command, or to be strictly hands off, distant.

"The differences are small and of course individuals vary," Dr. Eagly said, "but women score higher on transformational leadership, modeling good behavior, working with people, letting people know when they are doing a good job."

BUT these instincts break down in certain circumstances, studies suggest, namely when women feel insecure because they are a token minority whose competence is in question, said Theresa Vescio, a psychologist at Penn State University.

"In these conditions, women tend to treat the lowest-ranking female workers as poorly as men do," Dr. Vescio said. The social skills that allow many women to be effective leaders also give them access to valuable information that hands-off or dictatorial types don't have. Collaboration not only engages colleagues but also helps expose them as possible allies or rivals. Helping others manage their careers and home life brings out gossip about hidden vulnerabilities and relationships in the organization. A manager, as she ascends, may use this information to protect others — or to keep them in check. (As in: "Can you take this job, given your family situation?")

In a study of more than 200 Fortune 500 leaders, Calvin Morrill, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine, found that almost all of the small number of women bosses — 23 — had cultivated a powerful male mentor.

"The men had mentors, too, but for some reason were likely to split with them," Dr. Morrill said. "But the women kept these guys in their pockets, and their ability to mobilize these partisans made some of them more confrontational."

Anyone can pull on a pair of Prada loafers and throw a fit. But the women who become tyrants — whether they are successful leaders or awful ones — often have a lot more ammunition in reserve than the tough-guy boss down the hall.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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