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Talent, Not Gender, Should Be The Focus Of Diversity And Inclusion Interventions



I’m an organizational psychologist. I use science and technology to predict and understand human behavior at work. One of the areas that fascinates me is the relationship between gender, personality, and leadership. More specifically, how gender and personality shape our choices of leaders, and how those leaders impact organizations.

Discussions on gender typically focus on the underrepresentation of women in leadership, which is more or less universal: anywhere in the world, the vast majority of leaders are men.

But a bigger problem is the fact that most of these leaders are incompetent: indeed, whether in business or politics, the majority of leaders have very negative effects on their followers and subordinates: causing low levels of engagement, trust, and productivity, and high levels of burnout and stress. Just google “my boss is…” to see what most people think of their managers (and perhaps feel better about yours).

What people think of their bossesgoogle.com

So, the main question we should be asking is not why there aren’t more women leaders, but why so many incompetent men become leaders.

Research suggests there are three main reasons for this.

The first is our inability to distinguish between confidence and competence. Anywhere in the world we assume that confident people have more potential for leadership, but the reality is that in any area of talent, including leadership, there is very little overlap between confidence (how good people think they are) and competence (how good they actually are). I grew up in Argentina, where the gap between confidence and competence is particularly pronounced. Indeed, one of the best investments you can make in your life is to buy an Argentine for what he’s worth, and sell him for what he thinks he is worth (as you can imagine I can’t crack this joke back home: we are not self-aware enough to find it funny).

The second is our love of charismatic individuals. Particularly since the explosion of mass media in the 1960s – and this has been turbocharged by the digital age – we appear to want leaders who are charming and entertaining, but there is a big difference between a good leader and a standup comedian. In fact, the best leaders are humble rather that charismatic, to the point of even being boring. Unfortunately, this means they are rarely the focus of media attention or blockbuster movies. For instance, just imagine a movie on Angela Merkel: e.g., she wakes up, has breakfast with her husband, goes to meetings well-prepared, lets other people talk without interrupting them, makes rational decisions, there’s no scandals about her, she just runs her country well (at least compared to how most heads of state run theirs). YOU MAY ALSO LIKE UNICEF USA BrandVoice Children Uprooted: The Things They Carried Civic Nation BrandVoice Access Is More Than Just Inclusion Grads of Life BrandVoice A Foundation For The Future Of Workforce Development

In contrast, there is a surplus of captivating biopics on charismatic leaders with a fascinating dark side who end up ruining their countries and organizations.

The third is our inability to resist the allure of narcissistic individuals, people with grandiose visions that tap into our own narcissism. We’ve always admired famous people, but our admiration for those who admire themselves has been rising for decades. At this rate, future generations will look back at Kim & Kanye and say: wow, weren’t they modest!

In line, much of the popular advice on how to be a leader promotes narcissistic behaviors: “love yourself no matter what”, “if you think you are great you are”, “don’t worry about what people think of you”. Unfortunately, this creates a surplus of leaders who are unaware of their limitations and unjustifiably pleased with themselves. They see leadership as an entitlement, and lack empathy & self-control, so they act without integrity and indulge in reckless risks.

In contrast, good leaders keep their narcissism in check. They care a lot about others, including what they think of them, and spend a great deal of time worrying about their reputation, which is why there are few scandals about them.

So, how then do we stop incompetent men from becoming leaders?


The first solution is to follow the science, and look for the qualities that make people better leaders, particularly when they don’t usually make people leaders. There is a pathological disconnect between the traits that seduce us in leaders and those that are needed to be an effective leader: if we want to upgrade the quality of our leaders we should start by focusing on the right traits. Instead of falling for people who are confident, charismatic, and narcissistic, we should pick leaders on the basis of their competence, humility, and integrity.

Incidentally, this would also result in a higher proportion of female than male leaders, but the main point is that it would improve the overall quality of our leaders.

The second solution is to distrust our instincts. Most of us love our intuition, but most people are not as intuitive as they think. Intuition is a bit like sense of humor: 90% of people think they have a great sense of humor but how many people are actually funny, 10%?

One implication is to focus less on the impressions people make during job or media interviews, which are just an invitation to project our own biases and prejudices. Even when we are well-intended it is not easy to overcome this. For example, unconscious bias training will rarely help you ignore that the person in front of you is female, white, or attractive. In fact, the more you try to suppress thoughts, the more prominent they will be in your mind. Predictive assessments and data can help us make objective inferences of leadership talent without depending on our intuition.

The third and final solution for improving the quality of our leaders is to not lower our standards when we select women, but to raise them when we select men.

This means not asking women to behave like incompetent men (for instance, by leaning in when they don’t have the talents to back it up, or by spending more time self-promoting and advancing their own personal interest), or screen out men because they lack the traditional masculine features that match our flawed leadership archetypes.

To the extent that we can do this we will not just end up with more female leaders, but also more competent leaders (both female and male).

Originally appeared in Forbes.

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