Stop selecting incompetent men over competent women as leaders

If we focus on talent we will end up with better leaders and more female leaders, because the truth is women are more competent leaders than men

We know women are as interested in leading as men are. We know that there’s no connection between men (or anyone) putting themselves forward for things and them being good at them. And we also know that more men are leaders than women. My question is: how well are these leaders typically doing?

The answer is not very well. There is compelling data showing that many employees can’t stand their bosses, and are quitting their jobs and turning to self-employment because they are so disillusioned and disenchanted with their leaders. And this is because a lot of leaders are incompetent men.

Clearly we need to fix the way we approach leadership. If we focus on talent we will end up with better leaders and more female leaders, because the truth is women are more competent leaders than men.

People ask me how I know this. If we look at the scientific evidence of how women perform in leadership roles they on average communicate better, have more integrity and are better able to mentor others than men. And yet we typically equate leadership with traits found more often in men, such as overconfidence, narcissism – even psychopathy. These traits may help men advance their careers but they are toxic for their organisations – and for everyone within them.

So there’s a big disconnect between women’s leadership potential and their access to leadership positions. It’s a bit like saying that height is advantageous for a job and then continuing to select shorter rather than taller candidates – although it doesn’t make sense, we often select incompetent men over competent women for leadership roles.

People often perceive gender diversity initiatives as anti-meritocratic, as if getting more women into leadership roles would be an act of positive discrimination. In fact, if we focused on actual leadership talent, we would need to come up with positive discrimination processes to help men get to the top – this would be a much more logical problem to have.

But it’s not just the competent women who don’t fit the mould of masculine leadership traits and are overlooked for positions who are being harmed. The few women who do make it into leadership positions are also being disadvantaged by this, as to get there they have to out-masculine men.

Look at Theresa May. She is the product of this environment and the symptom of the disease created by other incompetent men. She has been given an unsolvable problem caused by incompetent men – especially David Cameron.

But because no-one else wanted the job she ‘leaned in’ to the impossible position, to behave in a typical Machiavellian, power-hungry, overconfident and masculine way.

So what role does HR have to play in all this? Well, it takes competence to spot incompetence in leaders and that’s not going to come from IT, legal or marketing. Leaders may think they can spot talent when they see it but it’s down to HR to put robust talent identification systems in place to solve this problem.

In particular, there are three concrete things HR needs to do in order to both upgrade the quality of our leaders and increase the number of women in leadership:

1. Follow the science. Focus less on charisma and narcissism and more on integrity and competence. It’s hardly ground-breaking, but we don’t do it and we keep on selecting inept and unethical egomaniacs.

2. Distrust our instincts. Stop relying on gut feelings and short-term human interactions like the job interview, which only serve to perpetuate bias and nepotism.

3. Make it harder for incompetent men to become leaders (rather than making it easier for competent women to become leaders).

Do these three things and there will not only be more female leaders but also many more competent leaders. Which will benefit everyone.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, and author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?