Do Stereotypes Make Better Managers?

What with the Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley dust up, stereotypes have been on my mind lately. More specifically, I’ve become concerned with how and why we create them, and what they cost us, especially given the recent NYT interview with Carol Smith, entitled “No Doubts: Women are Better Managers.”

Now I have no bias toward the gender. In fact, some of my best friends are women, and even members of my own family are women. As neuroscientist John Medina has explained, there are fundamental differences between the brains of men and women that lead to different traits. I, for one, believe that there is also strong evidence that women are predisposed to acquire those skills that make them better at managing relationships.

Carol Smith may be a terrific manager. But given the errors our reasoning is prone to, her interview may drive readers to make the same kind of mental mistakes as Gates and Crowley. The best way I can illustrate the danger is by presenting the results of my own study on gender-based traits. I readily admit my sample is so small that the validity of my results is open to question. I used what I had at hand: my two daughters, ages nine and ten.

Ten-year-old Julia has an obsession with fashion. The pinnacle of self-actualization for her is a trip to the mall and her favorite clothing store. Everything else pales by comparison: her household chores, her homework, and even lectures from her father on proper deportment.An ancillary trait is a fondness for vampires and for a certain male actor that plays one in a popular movie. Julia is also an incredibly sweet girl, and even more so when a trip to the mall might be in the cards. 

Since I am a man with neither a fondness for the mall or vampires, I could reason that these traits are gender-based. But I’m a good enough scientist to recognize the need to test my hypothesis with another observation, in effect doubling my sample size. Emma, though well past the age when Julia’s obsession became manifest, has absolutely no interest in fashion. Instead, her wardrobe is just a means to state her self-affirming philosophy that “Life is Good.” The more infrequently her clothes are laundered, or even changed, the better. And no vampires for her; she prefers the Marx Brothers. Emma is also as sweet as can be, particularly when some tasty treat is in the offing. So I can’t conclude a gender-based predisposition for fashion or anti-fashion, vampires or Groucho.Based on a sample of one, it’s equally difficult to conclude that Carol Smith’s penchant for making lists, coming late to meetings when the small talk is over, or being willing to confront are gender-based.

Nor can one necessarily conclude that these traits are responsible for her being a better manager. When I doubled the sample size in my study, I did find one trait in common: a fondness for chocolate and an ability to consume enough in one sitting to plunge a horse into a diabetic coma. But it’s a stretch to conclude that’s why little girls are “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Our ability to generalize is a valuable evolutionary adaptation. If we’ve had experience with one saber-tooth tiger, we don’t have to learn the hard way that the next one we encounter views us as lunch. But generalizations also lead to errors, such as the suspicion that a 5’7″ black man with a cane is so dangerous he needs to be handcuffed, or the conviction that a white police officer in the People’s Republic of Cambridge is a racist.

Stereotypes of minorities, police officers, women managers, or even bloggers, will highlight common denominators at the expense of the wide range of individual differences. My father was 6’4″ tall and mother 5’2″, but to conclude the average Jacobs parent is 5’9″ tall obscures the towering reality of my father and my mother’s need to perch on a phonebook while driving.

But generalization also haunts us when it comes to implementing the practices that make for good management. Smith advocates the use of a palliative–a positive statement–before she delivers hard feedback. While a boost to the ego makes it easier to accept criticism, palliatives come in all shapes and sizes. Complimenting me on my punctuation isn’t liable to reduce the sting of a follow on comment that my writing is as dull as dishwater.

Generalizing runs counter to fully appreciating the uniqueness of other people, along with their views, needs, and quirky social practices. While coming late to meetings may save time, for many men and women, small talk builds better working relationships and unhooks the mind from other concerns, making it easier to reach decisions on the critical business issues of the moment. Even if such chatter didn’t have benefits, I can only imagine how the male managers feel about Smith’s absence from such a waste of time.

There is a solid body of management research, with large enough sample sizes to be valid, to teach us what in general works or doesn’t. But because all of us are prisoners of our uniquely subjective views, our success in implementing good practices depends on our read of the people we manage. The more we use our mirror neurons and our theory of mind to move beyond stereotyping to empathizing with each individual, the better we’ll be at doing the right thing in the right way.

So what should an aspiring manager, male or female, do? Focus on developing the skills that research has established lead to improved performance, and trust in the plasticity of the brain to learn those skills, regardless of gender. Appreciate that the people you manage are individuals and step into their shoes before you determine how to act.

It’s a safe bet, given the way the mind works, few of us are as good as we would like to believe. So search for evidence not of the success of your actions, but of their failure. The more we accept our own fallibility, the more open we’ll be to all of the teachable moments that make management such a joy.

One last thing: never give an interview to the NYT on why you’re a good manager.

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