Study: Male Leaders Who Ask for Help Often Perceived Negatively

Men who seek assistance at work are viewed as less competent, research finds

By Dana Wilkie July 9, 2015

Male leaders who ask for help at work are perceived by colleagues as less competent than those who don’t ask for help—a perception that can also find its way into performance evaluations, according to new research published April, 26, 2015, in The Leadership Quarterly.

The findings raise questions about discrimination based on gender stereotypes, particularly since the research found that female leaders who seek help aren’t stigmatized in the same way.

A “mounting body of evidence has investigated behaviors proscribed for women, but given the perceived overlap between the male gender role and the leadership role, less attention has been devoted to those behaviors that are somewhat forbidden for male leaders,” wrote the researchers from Duke University, the University of San Diego and the University of Pittsburgh.

In the researchers’ first study, 144 business students of both genders, ranging in age from 25 to 35, were enrolled in seven leadership ventures that focused on developing skills in a challenging and unfamiliar environment. These ventures included: ski sledding and mountaineering on a glacial ice cap in Antarctica; mountaineering, mountain biking and rock climbing in Chile; climbing a volcano in Ecuador; rock climbing, mountaineering and sailing in Chile; mountaineering through an Alaskan national park and preserve; climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and taking a safari across the Tanzanian plains; and mountaineering in a Wyoming national park.

Participants were randomly assigned to be “leader of the day,” during which they were expected to organize, coordinate and plan all outdoor and learning activities. After each day’s activities, participants completed a questionnaire asking them to rate their leader’s competence.

“Help-seeking was negatively related to perceptions of competence for male leaders, whereas there was no significant relationship between help-seeking and perceptions of competence for female leaders,” wrote the researchers.

A press release about the study asked: “What implications does this have for social roles in the corporate landscape? What examples does this set for male and female employees working under both male and female leaders? And how can men in leadership positions set positive examples of collaboration and vulnerability in difficult situations without appearing weak?”

In a second study, the researchers examined whether an interpersonal leadership style—a style stereotypically associated with women that focuses on expressing consideration for followers and includes a desire to build relationships with them—might exacerbate perceptions of weakness for men.

Participants in this study were told to imagine they were workers at a fictitious company, Lancom.3, and were asked to evaluate the competence of a top-level manager named either Mr. or Ms. Chris Bennett, based on a meeting this Mr. or Ms. Bennett arranged to discuss a large client. Participants were randomly assigned to various iterations of this meeting in which the male or female leader either asked or didn’t ask for guidance or assistance from others at the gathering, and in which the leader either used an interpersonal leadership style or a more directive approach focused on straightforward, independent decision-making. Using a 7-point scale, participants then rated the leader’s competence, capability, intelligence and confidence.

Male leaders who sought help were evaluated as less competent than male leaders who did not seek help, regardless of whether they displayed an interpersonal or directive leadership style.

“The popular press is riddled with instances where leaders have failed because they chose not to ask for help from subordinates, who are often closer to day-to-day operations,” the researchers wrote. “For example, Stan O'Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch, was fired during the subprime mortgage crisis in part because he did not seek help from subordinates. Taken together, this work suggests that male leaders should consider seeking help despite the possible costs in terms of competence perceptions.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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