The days of the ‘superchicken’ are numbered

2019-04-16 19:13

South African businesses are feeling the pressure of rising fuel prices, slower economic growth and an upcoming general election – as well as the threat of further load-shedding.

What they might not know, is that one of their best bets for survival in such testing times is to make way for more women in top roles.

Research has found that women perform better under pressure than men.

A team from the University of California has demonstrated that when men get stressed, their bodies are fired up by adrenalin and they go into flight-or-fight mode, also described as “competing to win”.

Women, however, respond differently. When women are stressed, their bodies release oxytocin, which is all about peer bonding, caring and connection and social cohesion.

This has interesting implications for the world of business – especially in a changing world of work.

A comprehensive new study by the Global Leadership Forecast, looked at 2 400 organisations in 54 countries and found that companies that employed more women were not only more productive – but also functioned better.

Businesses with greater gender diversity of at least 30% overall in leadership roles, performed better than less diverse competitors when it came to key leadership and business outcomes.

The study showed that higher gender diversity resulted in leaders working together twice as well to find solutions and identify opportunities and were 1.5 times more likely to work across sectors in an organisation.

These firms were also 1.4 times more likely to have sustainable and profitable growth.

When women are in the majority at senior executive level, the dynamics do change, says Tebogo Movundlela, chairperson of leading wind energy organisation, SAWEA (South African Wind Energy Association).

“The board of SAWEA has a majority of women,” says Movundlela.

“And I must say, I find that women are more meticulous and detail-orientated, they pay more attention to diversity and look at issues holistically. If there is an item on the agenda, they tend to take a whole lot of considerations into account, from the financial to the social.”

She says studies show that gender-diverse boards perform better than less balanced boards, not only financially but also when it comes to finding solutions and being more innovative.  

With such compelling evidence it is disconcerting that there is still a dearth of women in senior business roles around the world.

South Africa currently has no female CEO at any of the top 40 companies and while globally, women are well-presented at middle management level – at about 50% – they rarely make it higher up the corporate ladder.

There are many reasons for this; among them an unconscious bias at workplaces not to promote women, as well as a lack of confidence and an unwillingness by women to apply for positions unless they feel 100% qualified and suitable.

A report by Hewlett Packardshowed that while men will apply for a position if they meet about 60% of the criteria, women would only apply if they met 100% of them.

“Sometimes women need to be reminded that they can be ambitious,” says Professor Beatrix Dart, founder of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business as well as Strategy Professor at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Another reason for this bias is the myth that competition is a superior element in business.

Entrepreneur, author and business expert Margaret Heffernan in her book, “A Bigger Prize”, writes “using competition to identify the best and then using the best to inspire the rest turns out to be a great theory; it just doesn’t work in practice”.

She explains that pushing competitiveness results in painful stress, unhealthy habits and general unhappiness. She uses the example of scientist William Muir who studied productivity under chickens.

He had two groups – a group of ordinary chickens, and another group of “best” chickens.

After six generations, he found that while the first average group were doing well, the second group only had three surviving chickens. The rest had been pecked to death. They had achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest. 

Heffernan says too many companies are using the “superchicken model”, thinking that success is achieved by picking the superstars, usually the brightest men (and occasional woman) and giving them all the resources and the power.

“And the result has been just the same as in William Muir's experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste,” says Heffernan.

An MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence study into high performing teams corroborates her views.

It showed that the groups that were the highest-achieving were not those containing the people with the highest IQ or even the best aggregate IQ, but the teams that had higher social sensitivity and inclusivity and that these tended to be groups with more women in them. 

Professor Thomas Malone, head of the Centre wrote that it appears the collective intelligence of a group rises when there are women in that group. And in fact, the more women, the better.

The importance of having women on the team is likely to increase too with the acceleration of technology uptake and automation in the workplace.

In such a world, the WEF has argued, that skills such as complex problem solving, creativity, cognitive flexibility and people management are going to be more important than yesterday’s technical prowess and command and control structures.

In short, the days of the “superchicken” are numbered.

If there was ever a time to invest more in women leadership it is now.

Despite gaining a reprieve from rating agency Moody’s, business confidence in South Africa is low and the coming months are likely to get even tougher for business. 

Creating an inclusive and cooperative culture in the workplace that embraces women and the energy and talents they bring takes time and effort, but it will be an investment in resilience and sustainability and therefore the smartest thing any organisation could do.

Liz de Wet is a leadership development expert who also convenes the Executive Women in Leadership course at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.

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August 18 2019