THE BLOG

Is Business Perpetuating a Fear of Failure Culture?

21/10/2014 10:06 BST | Updated 20/12/2014 10:59 GMT

This summer, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable announced a "historic day for the FTSE" as global mining giant Glencore, the last bastion of all-male boards in the FTSE 100, appointed its first female director. This was certainly a sign of progress but true equality for women in all walks of corporate life is still a long way away. Today, men still outnumber women in leadership positions by three to one globally. We all know it is not an issue of ability so why does the imbalance persist?

Our research into the characteristics of global leaders gives some indication as to the root of the problem. Analysing the motivational factors that drive the genders to senior positions worldwide, we see that there are stark differences between what matters to men and women as they climb the career ladder.

Our findings show that men in leadership positions are motivated by fear of failure, avoiding mistakes and associated loss of self-esteem and power. They thrive on opportunities to take responsibility, exercise authority and influence others. Whereas women are motivated by a constructive working atmosphere, positive working conditions, receiving recognition and being acknowledged for their contributions and achievements.

The million-dollar question here is, given men dominate leadership positions, does this perpetuate an unbalanced culture in the boardroom, and could this prevent women from progressing to the top?

Research suggests that females are becoming increasingly demotivated as they progress in their careers. At companies with more than 1,000 employees globally, women's representation diminishes significantly, dropping 12 percent between junior-level positions to mid-level roles, and a further 10 to 12 percent between senior level jobs including senior vice presidents.

For our businesses to remain competitive in the global economy, the C-suite culture will have to break down these barriers if it is to attract aspiring female leaders. UK plc needs to proactively adapt boardroom culture so more women are keen to continue their career path to the top.

To do this, organizations need to first, identify the key elements of their culture through focus groups, specifically examining those elements most valued by women. Second, they need to work to change the culture into a more female-friendly one by visibly supporting more collaborative behaviors and providing rewards based on contribution and constructive risk taking rather than punishing failure. To take just one example of what this means in practice, one Fortune 500 company has created Failure testimonials and asked each leader to contribute their own productive failure story to counteract fear of failure.

Finally, committing broadly to flexible work schedules also will support the retention of women who often balance multiple demands on their time in and out of work. For instance, one manufacturing company is now allowing employees to set their own work hours to accommodate women who wish to be home when children arrive from school or to care for an elderly parent.

Women bring a different dimension to company culture and to business performance. Businesses would do well to not just acknowledge but actively support these differences if they want to make the most of the growth opportunities available to them. Talented women may well be the difference between success and failure of corporate growth plans.