The ‘Unfortunate’ Reactions to Diverse CEOs

When a woman or a racial minority is appointed CEO, the reaction by white male executives is often “unfortunate,” in the words of the author of a recent study.

The study in question, titled “One Step Forward, One Step Back” and published in an upcoming edition of the Academy of Management Journal, is based on surveys of more than 1,000 executives at large and mid-sized public companies during a five-year period. The researchers–Prof. Jim Westphal of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Prof. Michael McDonald of the University of Texas at San Antonio and Ross School of Business Ph.D. candidate Gareth D. Keeves–surveyed up to six executives at each company one level below the CEO. The executives responded to questions about organizational identification, mentoring, task-related help and board recommendations. The researchers restricted their analysis of the executives’ responses to periods of time when their company was undergoing CEO succession.

The results indicate that white male executives experienced a lower “sense of identity” with their company after the appointment of a female or racial minority CEO. This reduced sense of identity, the study’s authors write, led the executives to reduce the amount of help they provided to other executives at their firm, particularly their female or racial minority colleagues.

“Our study identifies an important mechanism by which such appointments may, counterintuitively, harm the career prospects of other female and racial minority managers by reducing the amount of help that they receive from their white male colleagues,” says Westphal.

Andres Tapia, senior client partner for diversity and inclusion at Korn Ferry Hay Group, says the study’s results aren’t necessarily surprising.

“Unconscious bias is alive and well,” he says.

The withholding on the part of the white executives could be due to unconscious bias on their part–or, it could be flat-out racism or sexism, says Tapia.

“The more benign interpretation of the results could be that the white male executives simply have less opportunity to share and network with female or minority colleagues because they have fewer social interactions with people who aren’t like themselves outside of work,” he says. “Social interactions tend to nurture affinity, which leads to more sharing of information.”

The less-benign interpretation, of course, would be a desire to see female and minority colleagues–and ultimately the CEO–fail, says Tapia.

“We do see a great deal of racism, sexism–and flat-out misogyny–in our society,” he says.

Tom Kolditz, a leadership scholar and director of Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders, agrees that the study’s findings aren’t surprising. However, they don’t necessarily suggest a need for additional training or organizational reforms, he says.

“I accept the significance of the researchers’ findings, but I’m not sure how much practical significance they have,” says Kolditz, whose experience includes overseeing leadership-development programs at West Point and Yale University. “We all bring to the table a myriad of demographics when we show up somewhere. People are really complex. If you say ‘white male,’ for example, you’ve really told me nothing.”

Leadership, by its very nature, usually entails leading people with backgrounds, experiences and opinions that differ from one’s own, he says. All leaders, regardless of their sex or ethnicity, will ultimately succeed or fail based on the quality of their leadership, he adds.

For now, most of the CEO spots at the nation’s companies continue to be held by white males: Only 27 of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, according to Marketwatch, and just three are black men.

In some cases, white males may be more resistant to women and racial minorities having positions of authority over them because those groups are less willing to assimilate than in the past, says Tapia.

“Minorities who got promoted early on into positions of leadership had perfected the game of assimilation,” he says, and were thus less likely to be perceived as a threat. More recently, however, minorities and women have become less willing to “blend in” for the sake of conformity and more willing to speak out against perceived unfairness and discrimination in the workplace, says Tapia. That, along with their greater numbers in the managerial ranks, makes it more likely for them to be perceived by white males as a potential threat to their status, he says.

“When I coach executive women who are baby boomers, for example, so many of them have stories of subsuming their identity to ‘fit in’ and be seen as one of the guys,” says Tapia. “A lot of the Gen X women aren’t playing that game, partly because they don’t have to. However, this might trigger bias–conscious and unconscious–from men.”

It’s important for HR to systemically address unconscious bias, says Tapia–not only through unconscious bias training, but in evaluating whether it’s been codified into the organization’s talent systems. Typically, there’s a strong correlation between the behaviors and characteristics typically associated with “leader” and those commonly considered typically male behavior: assertive, powerful, gravitas, “in control,” he says. Meanwhile, the behaviors typically associated with women–collaborative, nurturing–often fail to make it into leadership competencies, yet when women display behaviors more associated with men–assertiveness, for example–it can backfire on them, says Tapia.

“The guys have to face up to their unconscious bias–that when a male boss is assertive with them it’s fine, but if it’s a woman then it triggers passive-aggressive behavior,” he says.

When it comes to women and racial minorities who’ve already made it into the leadership ranks, however, their ability to lead effectively will ultimately depend on the quality of the leadership development they’ve received to lead, mentor and inspire others, says Kolditz.

“In some respects, becoming accepted is the leader’s job,” he says.

When asked what advice he’d give to a board that has just selected a female or racial minority as CEO, Kolditz says “I’d tell them they should say to that person what they’d say to any other new CEO: ‘Get busy.’ “

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.