When Good Women Make Bad Bosses

Illustration: Josie JammetIllustration: Josie JammetBy Suzy Welch

There are a handful of mistakes women bosses tend to make more than men-five, to be exact. Why? The explanation, in each case, has its roots in cultural and social traditions, and maybe even genetics. In the end, understanding why women make these mistakes is less important than understanding how they can avoid them.

First, women bosses mismanage emotional distances. In 1977, when a close family friend first became a boss, she was determined to be taken seriously by her bosses and partners (all men) and her employees (all men except a lone secretary). To do that, she took the only obvious route: She mimicked the classic male boss-tough and authoritative. She wasn't unfriendly to her employees, but she was certainly impersonal. In real life, this woman was none of those things, though she was probably right in assuming that, at the time, the Ice Queen boss was the only persona acceptable for women in leadership roles.

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Today the Ice Queen isn't the only acceptable persona, but it still persists widely. After I graduated from business school, my first boss at a consulting firm was one, as were my second and third. These were smart and capable women, and I learned a lot from them, but they kept all of us at arm's length. It worked. We were motivated by clear directives, performance incentives, and yes, fear.

I lost my fear of bosses only when I joined a nonprofit organization several years later. There, almost all the women in power used a starkly different style of leadership-what I've come to call the Good Mother approach. They were nurturing, endeavoring to know each of us personally. They did, and we knew all about them, too, from their favorite restaurant to their fifth-grader's problem with math.

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Like the Ice Queen model, the Good Mother can be very effective. At my nonprofit job, for example, our boss made us feel like a family, and many of us cared about the work as if it were our own company. The problem, though, with both of these common leadership styles is that they mismanage emotional distances.

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Ice Queens first: With their cool veneer and imperial demeanor, Ice Queens don't show much interest in their employees' hopes and dreams. Nor do they invite fun, laughter, or a sense of excitement into the workplace. They are managing emotional distances, yes, but by pushing their employees away. Ultimately, what a loss in terms of motivation and retention! People want to work where they are known and valued, and they give more when they are. Ice Queens may employ their people's hands and brains, but they're rarely able to unleash something more powerful: their hearts.

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By contrast, Good Mothers can unleash too much. That is, they can invite too much emotionality into their relationships with employees, blurring the line between boss and friend. Such blurring can go along for a time, and it can feel cozy and wonderful, but it inevitably backfires when circumstances require the "friend" at the top to institute a strict workplace rule, for instance, or deliver a tough message about performance. Then-crisis. Employees feel hurt or betrayed, or both. Their Good Mother, they grumble, wasn't a mother at all but a boss.

Handling emotional distances is one of the most complex challenges a boss faces, male or female. But the Ice Queen and Good Mother leadership styles, both so common, make doing it all the harder. The remedy lies in striking the right intimacy balance-close enough to know your people, distant enough to lead them.

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