“People trust female leaders more than male leaders in times of crisis, but only under specific conditions,” said paper co-author Corinne Post, professor of management at Lehigh. “We showed that when a crisis hits an organization, people trust leaders who behave in relational ways, and especially so when the leaders are women and when there is a predictable path out of the crisis.”
Relational behaviors are shown by those who think of themselves in relation to others. Such skills help build and restore trust, and, on average, are adopted more by women than men. The researchers specifically looked at the relational behavior of interpersonal emotion management (IEM), which alleviates feelings of threat during a crisis by anticipating and managing the emotions of others. IEM behaviors include removing or altering a problem to reduce emotional impact; directing attention to something more pleasant; reappraising a situation as more positive; and modulating or suppressing one’s emotional response. IEM is central to establishing or repairing trust, often eroded when a crisis occurs.
Researchers defined crisis as a common, though often unexpected, time-sensitive, high-impact event that may disrupt organizational functioning and pose relational threats. For a company, this could be a product safety concern, consumer data breach, oil spill, corruption allegation or widespread harassment.
“Crises are fraught with relational issues, which, unless handled properly, threaten not only organizational performance but also the allocation of organizational resources and even organizational survival,” they said. “Organizational crises, therefore, require a great deal of relational and emotional work to build or restore trust among those affected and may influence such trusting behaviors as provision of resources to the organization,” including economic resources and investment in the firm, as well as inspiring employee cooperation.
To examine differences in trust for men and women leaders during an organizational crisis, researchers created a set of crisis scenarios. In some scenarios, the CEO (at times a male and at other times a female) anticipated and managed the emotions of others as the crisis unfolded - and in others the CEO did not attend to others’ emotions at all. Scenarios were varied to depict crises with predictable or uncertain outcomes.
“We found that this female leadership trust advantage was not just attitudinal, but that—when the consequences of the crisis were foreseeable—people were actually ready to invest much more in the firms led by relational women,” Post said. “Our finding also suggests that, in an organizational crisis, female (relative to male) leaders may generate more goodwill and resources for their organization by using relational behaviors when the crisis fallout is predictable, but may not benefit from the same advantage in crises with uncertain consequences.”
Demonstrating superior relational skills may help female leaders gain a trust advantage in crises that focus primarily on relationship aspects in an organization, when there is certainty around the resolution and fallout from the crisis is more controllable, for example. But it may not be as valuable when crisis outcomes are uncertain or difficult to control, when both agentic leadership (making decisions and acting quickly) and relational leadership (such as maintaining high levels of communication) are required.