Women are a lot more sensitive than men to the ratings they receive from co-workers, study suggests
January 1, 2013
For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,
At a time when peer feedback is an increasingly common tool in
cultivating corporate leadership, women stand out from men in at
least one critical respect -- they are much more likely than men to
take their co-workers' assessments of them to heart, new research
In what may be the first study to contrast how the two sexes
respond over an extended period to peer critiques, a report in the
current issue of Academy of Management Learning& Education finds that "women more
quickly and rationally align their self-awareness with peers' views
of them, whereas men continue to rationalize and inflate their
self-image over time."
Asked to rate themselves on four key leadership competences --
self-confidence, self-management, interpersonal understanding, and
behavioral flexibility --both men and women initially rate
themselves higher on each competence than their peers do, the study
finds. But over the course of six months women's self-assessments
decline more steeply than men's to the point where in the end they
"had essentially converged with peer ratings."
These results suggest, the study concludes, "that women are
closing the gap between self- and peers' ratings faster than men,
exhibiting more sensitivity to social cues." In addition, "these
differences in reaction to peer feedback [are] persistent."
Does this greater sensitivity constitute an advantage for women
in gaining positions of leadership? Not necessarily, according to
Margarita Mayo of Spain's IE Business School, who carried out the
research with her IE colleague Juan Carlos Pastor as well as Maria
Kakarika of France's Kedge Business School and Stephane Brutus of
Canada's Concordia University.
"Women's heightened sensitivity to their peers' critiques can be
a two-edged sword," comments Prof. Mayo. "Aligning their self-image
to reflect what others think of them represents an advance in
self-awareness, which is a big step in leadership development. But,
when self-awareness entails doubts about one's competence, it can
induce paralysis unless women take their cue from their peers to
seek out the training and coaching that will enable them to take on
"Likewise men's overestimation of their leadership abilities can
have both positive and negative consequences. Preserving their
sense of personal efficacy in the face of negative feedback can
help them take on new challenges; yet, persistently ignoring the
plain message of others is hardly a prescription for success over
the long haul.
"In sum," the professor concludes, "multisource feedback will
advance leadership development to the extent that programs combine
feedback with coaching in keeping with the different ways men and
women respond to the ratings of their peers."
The paper's findings derive from a study involving 221 MBA
students, 169 males and 52 females, with a mean age of about 30
years and an average of about six and a half years of work
experience. At the start of the one-year MBA program, the students
were assigned to mixed-gender teams who worked together every day
on a variety of assignments with the result that the five or six
team members got to know each other quite well.
Peer feedback was carried out at the end of each of the three
semesters that made up the school year, in January, April, and
June. Students sat at computers in a large room and completed a
Web-based survey that asked them to rate themselves and their
teammates on 12 items (three for each of the aforementioned
leadership competences). Items included "shows confidence when
facing unforeseen situations" (self-confidence); "knows when to
work and when to relax" (self-management); "doesn't feel stressed
or frustrated when doing several tasks at the same time"
(flexibility); and "actively seeks the opinion of others"
(interpersonal understanding). Participants rated themselves and
others on a scale of 1 ("not at all") to 5 ("completely"). One week
following data collection, students received survey results,
including their average rating from teammates compared to their
self-ratings on each of the four leadership competences.
The professors found that for the group as a whole average
self-ratings invariably exceeded peer ratings and that average
self-ratings declined with time. For example, the average
self-rating for self-confidence in the first
survey was 3.95 (on a scale of 1 to 5) compared to an average peer
rating of 3.69, while the corresponding figures for the second
survey were 3.85 and 3.59 and for the third survey were 3.74 and
3.60. But the pattern was quite different for men than it was for
women: for men it was 3.99 (self-rating) vs.3.70 (peer rating) on
the first survey, 3.92 vs. 3.64 on the second survey, and 3.84 vs.
3.64 on the third survey; for women it was 3.84 vs. 3.67 on the
first survey, 3.64 vs. 3.44 on the second survey, and 3.42 vs. 3.47
on the third and last survey.
Thus, by the time the last survey rolled around, at the
conclusion of the school year, women's average self-rating on
confidence was actually slightly lower than the average rating
bestowed by their teammates. The same was true for flexibility,
where women's average self-rating at year's end was 3.43, slightly
lower than an average peer rating of 3.50, a sharp reversal of the
3.58 (self) vs 3.39 (peer) in the second survey.
Only in the case of one of the four competences, that of
self-management, did no significantly different pattern of
self-awareness emerge between the genders over time. The professors
surmise that this may have to do with "internalized gender
stereotypes." In other words, "since self-management might be a
stereotypical female attribute, women may be less sensitive than
men to feedback on this competence."
The researchers tested the association of a number of other
factors with changes in leadership self-awareness -- including national culture
(the students represented 27 nationalities), socioeconomic class,
amount of work experience, academic background, age, and amount of
managerial experience -- and found all to be either unrelated or
only marginally related to changes in self-awareness, in sharp
contrast to the significant associations found for gender. For
example, whether participants were of Latin culture (58%) or Anglo
culture (27%) was unrelated to their sensitivity to peer
The study, "Aligning or Inflating Your LeadershipSelf-Image? A Longitudinal Study of Responses to Peer Feedback inMBA Teams," is in the December 2012 issue of
Academy of Management Learning &
Education. This peer-reviewed publication
is published quarterly by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000
members in over 100 countries, is the largest organization in the
world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's
other publications are the Academy of Management Review,
Academy of Management Journal, and Academy of