When Women Are Bad Bosses, Are They The Worst?

This is going to be a difficult one as while thinking and writing, I am swinging between mixed feelings. The topic is tough, but I believe an open-minded and objective reflection is worthwhile.

Imagine a very ordinary, relaxed, pleasant situation like a dinner with friends in an enchanting night in Madrid. Suddenly, during a very moderate and easygoing conversation, one of the crowd throws a bomb on the table: “When we talk about shitty bosses, women are unbeatable”… WHAT? Hey buddy, wait a moment!

You can certainly imagine what this statement triggered. I would not say that we almost came to blows, but — for sure — the atmosphere got incandescent.

This story has a happy-ending because, when it’s about having few good glasses of wine, and getting nicely drunk, gender does not matter and men, women and all the options in between are just equal.

Nonetheless, being a person who loves pondering over problems, I could not help but thinking about this topic. To find a decent way out of this gender-biased nonsense, I realized, the scientific method may be appropriate.

Let’s put down some facts:

  1. A recent survey of 5,000 British workers indicated that 45% of female bosses could be classed as bullies, and that 71% of their victims were other women. Are you surprised?
  2. It has been observed that women in senior positions may alienate other women.
  3. Women are oftentimes trapped in the tough task of forcing themselves to be “unemotional” to gain the respect of male colleagues, while remaining likeable and approachable to female colleagues, with the result of being perceived as not genuine. (In one of my previous posts, I celebrated the fact that vulnerability and emotions have now become leadership assets, therefore we can legitimately hope that this is going to be sorted out, let’s say in the next few years.)
  4. Another recent survey conducted in the UK has revealed that a third of women would prefer a male boss to a female one. The reason for that it that men seem to be more predictable that women. (May this have to do with the fact that, generalizing up to the limits of idiocy, men normally think in a linear way whereas women operate on an entirely different set of axis, more circular or matrixed-shaped?)

A side consideration, that may be relevant to point 4, is that it looks like women hate other women succeeding and they have the tendency to unconsciously — or consciously? — sabotage successful female colleagues. It looks like there is no much solidarity in the sisterhood, though all of us likely have first-hand experience of male colleagues playing dirty with one another driven by envy or simply for the sake of being jerks.

Not easy to find a way out in this labyrinth of research mixed with urban legends but, being a veteran, I may use my personal statistics.

I have been working for many years in matrixed organizations having the opportunity, and sometimes the privilege, to report to many different bosses (direct and functional). Most of them were good bosses, some of them great, some really awful. From ALL of them I have learnt something that has eventually become very useful.

If I have to lay down my personal ranking, I can identify three top bosses and three awful ones. At the top I have two male and one female bosses, at the bottom, two ladies and one guy.

OK this does not seem to help a lot.

But if I reflect on why the great ones were so good, I can’t find any key differentiator based on gender: they simply were genuine, smart, inspirational, adaptive, emotionally intelligent, self-conscious, transparent, humble, approachable, fair, decisive, accountable and respectful. This is a big bulk of qualities, right?. But it’s not infrequent to find all or most of them in the same human being, as they were consequence of one another.

The scenario gets very different when I go to the bottom of my ranking. The way the male boss was bad was quite different from the bad ladies were.

The guy was the typical narcissistic, egocentric, insecure chap in need to be worshipped by all team members (especially by the ladies, with whom he frequently stepped into the dangerous swamp of sexual harassment), not so good in making decision and oftentimes blaming on others his own mistakes. Well this is not such a rarity, is it?

Both ladies looked like the hyena prototype. They were the most aggressive and manipulative people I have ever met. One of them took you in what she used to call “the safe space for confidence”, pumping you up for personal information that she eventually used against you. Both of them often bullied and shouted at people, becoming frankly offensive. A 1:1 meeting with them looked like a waterboarding session, at the end of which you were literally breathless, almost convinced to be a “poor thing” and “the idiot of the village”, but also grateful to be still alive. Then you started the preparation for the next 1:1, checking and polishing your helmet and anti-bullet jacket.

What is interesting is that both ladies suffered from the Queen Bee Syndrome: they showed the best of their killer instinct with other women.

Summarizing this homemade research, we might say that good leaders have no gender, while bad leaders’ bitchiness is likely to be gender-driven.

Generally speaking I know several great female leaders who have a very positive attitude towards the sisterhood, trying to eliminate all the barriers and biases they have directly experienced.

As for me, every single day of my life I try to remember all the pieces of learning I got from all my bosses (good and bad), making good use of them.

I strongly believe a diverse team to be the greatest asset to succeed, all together. I couldn’t care less of which gender you are, if you pour tears listening to children singing or if you become “emotional” when you have a healthy fight. I value people who are committed to excellence and I strive to always evaluate uniquely on factual achievements.

I don’t know if this is the best recipe, but for the moment I stick to that, being always open to listen to different opinions.

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