Who We Really Look to in a Crisis

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Think about the worst kind of workplace catastrophe you can face. The company is in danger; the board is calling for action; everyone is worried about their jobs. We'd all want a strong leader to get us through that, and it turns out she's got a very particular profile.

Researchers in the U.S. and Northern Ireland have just released a study on leadership styles during crisis management. When faced with a predictable path out of a crisis, employees are more likely to trust a female leader who relies on relational and emotional behaviors. The study focuses on "interpersonal emotion management (IEM), which alleviates feelings of threat during a crisis by anticipating and managing the emotions of others." In short, leaders who understand that workers are individual people and approach them as such inspire more confidence for getting through a rough patch.

It's not all straightforward, though: There's a well-documented phenomenon called the glass cliff, in which women are elevated to CEO roles only when they can be blamed for an already-failing company. (This new study found that relational leadership styles won't help women when crises have uncertain outcomes.) Moreover, women have a hard time reaching positions of authority anyway, thanks to how management evaluates female workers. When women do take the lead, they're judged harshly for behaving just like men.

That said, every company dynamic is different. If anyone can change company culture and leadership styles from within, it's worth doing what you can when you can.