IN NOVEMBER 2018, I worked with my colleague Terry Babcock-Lumish
to prepare an article for The Conversation, a website where researchers
share their ideas with audiences outside academia. In it, we write
that, “As scholars who study political leadership, we believe more
women will be good for Congress for a fundamental reason: They
may just get a broken system working again.”
Now, in 2020, the number of women in the U.S. Congress has reached
an all-time high. We are excited to see the nation reach this milestone
not only because it represents more fair and equal representation for
American women, but also because research suggests that women leaders
often possess skills that our country and world desperately need.
Research and experience both indicate that women are more
likely to use inclusive both/and thinking. That is, they see conflict
and tensions not as problems, but as opportunities to gain input from both sides. In contrast, men are more
likely to adopt either/or thinking, an
attitude that is more likely to advance
their own agendas during conflict while
denigrating those of the other side. At a
time when collaboration across political
boundaries is hard to come by, the ability
to adopt both/and thinking could be a
major asset to Congress.
The fact that both/and thinking promotes
collaboration might also explain
why the Council on Foreign Relations
(CFR), a nonpartisan think tank based
in New York City, has found that peace
talks where women had strong influence
at the negotiating table were more likely
to end in an agreement. In a qualitative review of 40 peace and constitution drafting
negotiations since 1990, the
CFR also found that these agreements
were more likely to endure over time.
BENEFITS OF COLLABORATION
We can find many real-world examples
of what happens when women apply
both/and thinking to resolving contentious
issues. These examples include
Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership of the
United Nations working group that
drafted the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights after World War II. Another
is the leadership of five female senators
who came together to break the stalemate
that shut down the U.S. federal
government for 16 days in 2013.
More recently, Representative Nita
M. Lowey, a Democrat from New York,
and Representative Kay Granger, a Republican
from Texas, have been working
together as leaders of the U.S. House
Committee on Appropriations to negotiate
bipartisan terms on issues such
as immigration and federal spending.
“The women are taking over,” the late
Arizona Senator John McCain joked in
2013. These days, McCain’s commentary
seems less a joke than a political need.
Other research applies the CFR’s
findings to teams of all kinds. For example,
in a study published in Science in
2010, Anita Woolley and her team divided almost 700 volunteers into
groups of two to five people. They found
that teams with more women consistently
outperformed teams with more men.
In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Woolley and co-author Thomas
Malone suggest that successful teams
included more people with higher
emotional intelligence and social
sensitivity—and that women are more
likely to demonstrate these qualities.
Women might use their ability to read
and respond to the emotional states of
others to help team members work more
effectively as a group. In a follow-up
study, published in 2015 in the Public
Library of Science, the team discovered
that their original findings held true
whether teams met online or offline.
TEACHING ‘BOTH/AND’ TO ALL
While women might more naturally
adopt collaborative approaches, my research with colleagues Marianne Lewis and Mike Tushman finds that both/and
thinking is valuable for everyone. The
challenge for business schools is to find
ways to teach these behaviors to students
of all genders. How can we train
all students to be more collaborative,
team-oriented, and inclusive?
First, we can teach students to shift
away from either/or approaches, in
which they respond to differences by
provoking conflict, and instead embrace
both/and engagement, in which they
respond to difference by promoting
synergies. In my undergraduate classes,
graduate classes, and executive seminars,
I teach students that the most critical
and easiest step they can take during
any negotiation is to switch from asking
“Who is right?” to asking “How can both
sides engage and accommodate competing
demands simultaneously?” I share
research by Ella Miron-Spektor, Francesca Gino, and Linda Argote, which
shows that people who make this switch
come up with more creative ideas.
Next, we can bring in speakers who
have experience engaging in complex thinking about problems and working
through collaborative team dynamics.
Students find the stories these leaders
tell inspiring and instructive.
Finally, we must support classes,
extracurricular activities, and campus
initiatives that help students cultivate
cooperative mindsets. This means
immersing them in highly experiential
work where they must face challenging
situations before having to reflect
and regroup. We must invite them to
note their own emotional and cognitive
responses, understand their own biases
and reflexes, and think about the wide
range of behaviors they could adopt.
WORKING SLOW, TOGETHER
At the University of Delaware’s Lerner
College of Business & Economics in
Newark, I put these ideas into action
in my course Leadership from Within.
This course runs for one week, Monday
through Friday, from nine to five each
day; students work in teams to identify
and implement a bold vision by the end
of the week. The challenge is uncertain,
open-ended, and time-pressured, just
like situations that students will experience
in the real world.
Even so, the students often rebel:
They want more specificity. They want a
longer time horizon. They dislike the discomfort
they feel as the pressure of the
situation forces them to face—and push
beyond—their own anxieties and fears.
Because of the time pressure, some
group members want to come to a consensus
on a vision and move to implementation
quickly. One team member
might offer an initial decision and push to
implement this plan; the other members
begin to feel marginalized and start to
resist the process. In the end, the group is
forced to return to its starting point.
Eventually, students discover the
value of spending time to work through
the challenge together. They learn to be
patient and encourage their team members
to engage multiple points of view
from the beginning—they learn that they have to go slow to go fast. Most important,
they learn to recognize the value
of cultivating trust, listening to one
another, and building on each other’s
ideas rather than jumping straight into
execution mode. My students report
that they find the experience demanding
and incredibly enlightening.
The Lerner Women’s Leadership Forum
takes a similar approach. Informed
by the latest research, the forum targets
the leadership needs of professional
women. We focus on women who are hitting
the thickest part of the glass ceiling
after they have been in the workforce for
five to ten years, and who want to know
how to boost their leadership journey
to the next level. At the forum, we help
the women focus on bold goals, as well
as hone and apply their natural skills
in collaboration and complex thinking.
The forum provides these women with
not only a powerful network, but also
a women-only space where they can
address gender-based issues that might
not emerge in other programs. Over 30
percent of the participants have moved
into new roles within a year.
Experiences like these can encourage
women to develop their inherent
strengths. But we also should design
similar workshops that equip leaders
of any gender with collaborative skills.
As research shows, organizations see
improved performance under women’s
leadership—specifically because women
are more likely to apply collaborative
skills to seemingly intractable problems.
Helping all students strengthen these
same skills could be some of the most
important and world-changing work
business schools can do.
Wendy Smith is a professor of management
at the University of Delaware’s
Alfred Lerner College of
Business & Economics
in Newark, Delaware,
and co-founder of the
Initiative at UD.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].