NY Times — Who really makes the changes in an organization? It’s not always the people with the highest executive titles. A growing body of research has pointed to the importance of informal leaders known to researchers as “brokers,” who have the gift of connecting employees in productive new ways.
New research by Raina A. Brands of the London Business School and Martin Kilduff of University College London has uncovered a bias surrounding brokerage roles within organizations that gives advantages to male brokers and their teams.
Professor Brands and Professor Kilduff examined what are known as “friendship networks” within organizations. In this sense, friends are the people you turn to for help, advice and information, whether or not they are in your work group. Simply put, you like and trust them, Professor Brands says. You may also go out for a beer with them and talk to them about your personal life, though not necessarily.
It’s within these friendship networks that much of an organization’s work gets done, Professor Brands says, so the brokers in these groups are especially important. In a study of two separate groups — employees of an electronic-components distributor and a cohort of M.B.A. students — she and Professor Kilduff identified brokers based on the high level of connectivity they displayed. They also identified the people who were perceived by their colleagues to be brokers. (Perceived brokers are not always actual brokers.)
The researchers asked group members to evaluate their colleagues, including the actual and perceived brokers. This is where gender differences emerged. First of all, the researchers found that people tended to ignore the activities of female brokers and to exaggerate how much men served as brokers. Second, if women were recognized as brokers, they were perceived more negatively than their male counterparts.
“To the extent that women were perceived to be brokers, they incurred reputational penalties,” Professor Brands says. “They were seen as more competent, but less warm.” Other research, she says, has shown that men who take on brokerage roles tend to receive benefits in the form of compensation and promotions, whereas female brokers’ careers are negatively affected.
What accounts for this double standard? It could be that women who take on informal leadership roles are going against the gender-based grain by behaving assertively and decisively — qualities more traditionally associated with men, Professor Brands says.
She and Professor Kilduff also analyzed the performance of the perceived brokers’ teams. They found that women who were thought by their teams to be brokers tended to perform well individually, but at the expense of their overall team’s performance. Team performance may suffer as members react to what they perceive as “stereotype violations,” Professor Brands says.
In a paper describing their research, she and Professor Kilduff noted that men are traditionally defined by words like aggressive, forceful, independent and decisive. Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically expected to be kind, helpful, sympathetic and concerned about others.
Normally, women are thought to excel in the social realm — so you would think that they would be seen as good work brokers, the researchers said. But “despite the widespread notion of women as social specialists, perceptions of the network position of women will be distorted because of the expectation that brokerage is man’s work,” they wrote.
Much of this distortion may be below the level of conscious awareness, Professor Brands says, and simply bringing it to employees’ attention could help minimize the reputational bias that women incur at work.
By PHYLLIS KORKKI
Posted on April 12, 2014
NY Times | In the Workplace, Leaders Who Aren’t Always Followed