Image: gregobage/Getty Images via Harvard Business Review
Being demanding yet caring. Being authoritative yet participative. Advocating for themselves yet serving others. Maintaining distance yet being approachable. In the Harvard Business Review, Wei Zheng, Ronit Kark, and Alyson Meister identify these “four paradoxes, all stemming from the need to be both tough and nice,” that women leaders regularly confront.
“The problem,” they write, “is that these qualities are often seen as opposites. This creates a ‘catch-22’ and ‘double bind’ for women leaders.” To navigate these paradoxes, “women leaders first need to become aware of them, teasing out the different tensions rolled up into the central nice/tough double bind. Then, they can develop and customize a repertoire of strategies to manage, thereby enhancing their effectiveness and resilience.”
The authors offer sound suggestions for managing these tensions, which can prove valuable for any leader.
But it would be even easier for women to navigate these paradoxes — and spend less of their time and energy trying to thread the needle between nice and tough — if more men were aware of this double bind and their role in enforcing it, and took ownership for changing the leadership norms that anchor it in place.
All the women the authors interviewed are senior leaders —VP level or higher — yet despite the power their positions confer, they still go to tremendous lengths to walk that fine line between tough and nice, sacrificing some of their power to the entrenched gender norms that favor traditionally male leadership styles.
What would it mean to an organization if the time, brainpower, and energy these leaders spend navigating these paradoxes could be focused on solving complex problems, accelerating important projects, or mentoring the next generation of leaders — in other words, focused on what these leaders actually were hired to do?
This post originally appeared in The Mouse and the Elephant Resource. Read the full email here, and subscribe to receive future emails with diversity, equity, and inclusion resources using the form on our home page.