In today’s competitive marketplace it seems that not a week goes by without a high-ranking, well-respected leader admitting a serious mistake.

A provocative new study suggests a male leader is judged more harshly than a comparable female leader when they make an error.

Researchers say that any mistake made by a leader causes employees and followers to view the leader as less competent, less desirable to work for and less effective than leaders who do not make a mistake.

In the new research, Penn State’s Christian Thoroughgood discovered that if the leader is a man making a mistake in a man’s world, he is judged more harshly than a woman making the same mistake in a man’s world.

Thoroughgood and his colleagues have published their findings online in the Journal of Business and Psychology.

Naturally, it is a fact that leaders do make mistakes, and these mistakes can have far-reaching negative consequences. Nevertheless, for leaders to be effective, followers must trust their ability to make difficult decisions, execute their initiatives and act as positive organizational figureheads. Therefore, it is critical that followers see their leaders as competent.

When the leaders make mistakes, followers question their competence and are less willing to follow them and work for them.

Thoroughgood and his colleagues looked at how male and female leaders are rated, not when they succeed, but when they make mistakes.

Investigators studied whether subordinates would perceive their leaders differently according to the type of mistake they made and their gender, i.e., a man or a woman working in either a man’s world (construction) or a woman’s world (nursing).

In the study, a total of 284 undergraduates from a large northeastern university in the US, who had worked on average for nearly three years, read a series of fictional emails describing a leader’s behavior.

They were then asked to envision themselves as subordinates of the leader – either a man or a woman. In the emails, the leaders made two types of errors: task errors and relationship errors.

Survey participants then answered an online survey measuring their perception of the leader’s competence in both task and relationship matters, their desire to work for the leader as well as their opinion of whether the leader was effective or not.

Investigators discovered that errors did damage perceptions of leaders who commit them. Leaders who made mistakes were viewed as less competent in both task and relationship areas and ‘subordinates’ were less likely to want to work for them. They were also seen as less effective.

In addition, the authors observed an effect of gender. Male leaders were evaluated more negatively than female leaders for errors made in masculinized work domains.

The authors suggest that male leaders may be seen as violating expectations of male performance in this context, whereas women are expected to fail in masculine work settings.

The authors conclude that leadership errors do matter as they damage the perception of a leader’s competence and may harm follower’s desire to work for them.

“While it is impractical to suggest leaders should attempt to avoid errors altogether, they should recognize the different types of errors they make and consider how these errors impact their followers in different ways.”

Source: Springer