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What to do when leadership fails, part two

If a business leader makes a mistake, insisting that they resign means we miss the opportunity to learn valuable lessons and build better leaders and businesses, finds Jo Gallacher.

If you haven't already read part one of this story, catch up on it here.


The punishment gap

How likely we are to provide allowances for leaders to make mistakes and grow can be dependent on an expanding list of variables, from gender and ethnicity to the type of error made. Academic Abhishek Parajuli calls this the ‘punishment gap’, where some groups face more repercussions for failure than others, yet there are many facets to this argument. 

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For example, researchers from the University of Virginia found in 2019 that female CEOs were more likely to be held accountable than their male counterparts for ethical workplace failures. 

The team conducted a series of experiments in which opinions were analysed after a company experienced either a competence failure, such as a product flaw, or an ethical failure, such as if the product flaw was known but not disclosed to the public.

When participants were told that the company had previously been made aware of a fuel sensor problem and failed to take immediate action, an ethical failure, they reported less intent to purchase from the company when the CEO was a woman than when the CEO was a man. 

Yet when participants were told that the company was unaware of the product issue, therefore a competence failure, they reported greater intent to buy the products when the CEO was a woman than when the CEO was a man.

So it may be down to both gender and the type of failure when considering forgiveness for making a mistake, yet the research could simply be reflecting society’s expectations of male and female roles. 

And there’s plenty of similar research out there. In a Harvard study of doctors, gender played a huge role in our tolerance of failures in leadership. It found that when a female surgeon lost a patient there was a 34% fall in future referrals, but when a male surgeon lost a patient, there was no long-term decline in referrals.

Vivian Acquah, founder of Amplify DEI, says male leaders are bound to get an easier ride due to ongoing societal inequalities. She says: “Men have an inherent privilege based on years of being the top dog; when a woman makes a mistake, not only is the mistake amplified but her character is assassinated.

"Should a woman replace her, that woman will hold the extra baggage of her predecessor too.”

The punishment gap can be even more acute when considering leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds, putting black women, for instance, at a double disadvantage

An MIT study got 500 people to read a fictional article about a candidate involved in a sex scandal. Half the readers were told the candidate was Barack Obama. The other half were told it was John Edwards – a white Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. Even though the sex scandal was exactly the same, those who read the article with Obama as the candidate were more likely to punish him.

Similarly, a Harvard study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology concluded black women were more harshly evaluated under conditions of organisational failure when compared with black men, white men and
white women.

Acquah notes that these studies prove her worst fears around diversity initiatives within leadership programmes. She adds: “A study by the Alliance for Board Diversity and Deloitte found white women gained the majority of seats at the Fortune 100 (and 500) table while women of colour continue to struggle.

"This suggests that companies are either racist or sexist, as their focus is superficially on addressing the diversity imperative without truly creating an inclusive environment.”

Leiper agrees with Acquah’s sentiments, going one step further in pointing out an age discrimination when it comes to leaders making mistakes. 

He says: “In my work I see with young female leaders, age becomes a big discriminative factor with people. In white-male dominated organisations, many employees and leaders are willing to take feedback as long as they know the job title of the person giving the feedback. If a young leader makes a mistake, they will automatically be criticised for not having good enough experience when really that isn’t the issue.” 

There’s a whole host of data out there, often with conflicting conclusions, creating an intellectual minefield for HR practitioners to understand how failure and types of leadership are judged. Echoing the University of Virginia’s research, Morson Group’s Winstanley says it depends on the type of mistake as to whether there’s a punishment gap. 

She says: “I think society has deeply entrenched views of gender norms and with this comes an expectation for individuals to behave according to the behaviours associated with that gender.

“If I think of things in the media recently with the backlash faced by influencer Molly Mae [and her comments around class in which she said if people wanted something enough, they could make it happen] regardless of our views on whether what she said was right or wrong, she seemed to have sparked the wrath of public opinion.

I know that other male public figures have made similar comments in the past and have not faced anywhere near the amount of backlash that she faced.” 

Leadership in numbers...

  • 69% of Millennials believe there is a lack of leadership development in the workplace (GoRemotely)
  • Just 40% of employees in the UK said their leader behaves ethically (CIPD)
  • Less than half (48%) of employees view their company’s leadership as “high quality” (Zippia)
  • 97% of organisations are planning transformation in 2022 (Mercer)
  • Only 24% of a sample of 2,000 employees are confident they have leadership and management skills (City & Guilds Group)
  • 31% of employees feel less connected to their leaders as a result of the pandemic (LinkedIn)

However, Henderson warns we are at risk of generalising and simplifying leaders by following the punishment gap logic. 

She says: “In the high-performing senior leaders I coach, I haven’t seen experience of men being treated better for making a mistake than women. I guess there’s a tendency for female leaders to ask more for permission than forgiveness, and I definitely work on that with female leaders more than I do male.”

Henderson says HR, and wider society, puts itself at danger by expecting male leaders to automatically have all the attributes to become the best leader possible and could in fact be leaning into prejudices rather than working to improve them. 

She adds: “It’s fantastic that women have such brilliant support groups to help their leadership progression, but male leaders lack this support. If you get under the skin of male leaders, there’s just as much going on.

“There is a danger that we expect male leaders to automatically have all the skills they need, but just because they’re a man doesn’t mean they don’t want nor need it [leadership training and support]. We are at danger of telling male leaders they have to be alpha, confident and ruthless because they haven’t been told anything different.”


How to spot and deal with bad leadership

We all have examples of what bad leadership looks like, but it can be hard for HR to know how to manage the problem sensitively. Telling someone how to do their job is never an easy task, especially if they are in a more senior position than you. So how can HR tread carefully while ensuring necessary change is happening?

Winstanley says it begins with HR showing what good leadership looks like and ensuring organisations are reflective and self-critical, rather than scapegoating individuals. 

She says: “What have you as an organisation done to ensure you have enabled good leadership in your organisation? How much of their ‘poor leadership’ do you own? Defining to our people what is expected from them, particularly in leadership positions, is crucial along
with role modelling the associated behaviours and challenging when those behaviours aren’t demonstrated.”

She also encourages leaders to play to their strengths and weaknesses and to take that learning into how they manage their teams. 

She adds: “I often talk to our teams about sports teams: we wouldn’t put a striker in goal, so why put a person who is better working with numbers than people in a role where they have lots of line manager responsibilities? Understanding what motivates your leaders, what their development areas are and working in collaboration with them on that journey is pivotal to the success of HR when trying to rescue poor leadership.” 

There are plenty of self-help books and business listicles explaining what to do when you’ve got a bad boss. A simple Google search of that question comes up with 6,840,000,000 results. Henderson often leans on her previous experience of working with a difficult leader when senior leaders ask her a similar question. She recommends HR retain a child-like curiosity to the negative behaviour being shown in a bid to better understand where it’s coming from. 

She says: “HR should ask what’s at the root of that bad behaviour as it often comes from an emotive need. We should be asking how we have failed them so we’ve let bad leadership leak?”

“When their actions are not representative of the wider organisational strategy and they fail to achieve outcomes that benefit the common goal...it’s time to resign."

What leaders should look like in 2022 

This year will inevitably see many more scandals from Westminster and beyond, of which HR would be right to prepare itself for.
Yet as the world of work becomes more transparent, there is a case for cautious optimism for the right style of leadership in 2022. 

Lis Allen, senior vice president of HR EMENA at pharmaceutical company Accord Healthcare, argues the lasting impact of the pandemic and fear of doing something wrong should not impact a leader’s confidence. She says: “Confidence will be very important to leaders this year; the ability to seize opportunity in rapidly evolving scenarios and enable your folks to feel comfortable with change and
lots of it.”

This confidence is not just for the individual, but for the workforce too. She argues there could be much less focus on where people are working and how long it takes them to do their work, and more about bringing sharp focus to the output of their work or its outcomes. 

She adds: “[It will be about] being confident in people that they will deliver, assuming that at the beginning, and constructing policy to support that thinking. Individuals can be stretched in a very different way. There is real opportunity for people to be less focused on the work of one but the collective output out of the team.” 

Eleanor Tweddell, author and director of Another Door consultancy, argues that 2022 will be the year of judging what you didn’t do more than what you did.

She says: “Leaders will be challenged to make decisions on what are priorities, to get rid of pointless processes that add no value, and reduce meetings that don’t end with solutions.

“This isn’t about reducing workforce, it’s about focusing the workforce, helping employees to be more productive without burning themselves out. There is no point in investing in mental health apps and initiatives if leaders continue to let workloads grow to unmanageable levels. 

“People want strong direction, a sense of purpose and belonging, and a chance to do a really good job. Leaders are there to make it as easy as possible for everyone to do a brilliant job.”

The journey from pandemic to normality is far from over, and leaders will have to tackle a whole new set of challenges this year, from deciding on whether to introduce a mandatory vaccine policy to creating a genuinely innovative hybrid work model which works with employee needs and business interests. 

It’s hard to be a leader in 2022, and HR will need to be a driving force in ensuring best practice to prevent scandal from occurring in their organisation. Best of luck out there. 


This piece first appeared in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.