Leading Men vs. Leading Ladies - Do the Sexes Really Need Managing Differently?

02/05/2014 14:05 BST | Updated 02/07/2014 10:59 BST

In a previous Huffington Post article, I talked about gender stereotyping, in particular the typical leadership traits ascribed to each sex and the impact of such thinking. To recap, 'masculine modes of leadership' are characterised as being aggressive, ambitious and individualistic with an emphasis on control while 'feminine modes' are associated with being affectionate, helpful, friendly, empathetic and interpersonally sensitive. Of course, national and cultural variations need to be overlaid on these gender descriptions - and all this before we even begin to consider men and women as individuals.

The question as to whether men and women require different management approaches is interesting, not least as it has been - certainly in contrast to comparisons between how men and women manage - little researched. Anecdotally - from personal experience, stories and water-cooler comments - most of us probably believe they do, although the details are as vague as they are potentially contentious. We can, at least (I hope), see progress: I found an article from the 1940s that sheds light on how women were insultingly treated as second-class employees. Even if progress in the number of women in leadership roles has been glacially slow, it is - I trust - humorous in 2014 to imagine that people even once thought about managing this way.

The times have, thankfully, changed. Since the 1980s there have been two broad schools of thought that - along with your own potential unconscious bias - will have influenced your view on the significance of gender issues when managing others:

• The American approach, which has been to ignore the fact that people have a gender, treating everybody equally and by the same rules. The obvious downside is that 'the rules' have usually been put in place over the past 100 years of corporate life - by men

• The European approach, which taught us that gender differences exist and need to be paid attention to. In this scenario, women were encouraged to recognise and build on their differences (sometimes playing to - and even exploiting - men's stereotypes of working women).

What tips would I give to leaders managing a diverse workforce? Managing a diverse team means taking into account all differences - including age, national and cultural identity, racial background, religious preferences, and so on - it's certainly important to be aware of gender differences, but diversity is broader and more complex. Looking at cultural differences (with an eye to Geert Hofstede's research), managing a team containing a British man and woman may require a different (and less diverse) approach than a team with a British man and a Spanish man - to which you might rightly object, as generalisations are so-named with good reason.

Firstly, I would advocate that everyone needs to be treated as individuals with their own specific needs: while some might relate to their gender, others include (as well as those already mentioned) the role they perform, time with the team or company; capability and skill level; as well as confidence and experience. People have personalities, preferences, motivations, histories and ambitions as well as genders.

A leader's initial priority is to know each team member's individual strengths and development areas, which might not conform to gender stereotypes. Bill, for example, may have spectacular client relationship skills but never be able to say "no" to them, while Mary's people skills might not match her excellent technical skills. Unless you know all your team this well, you cannot truly balance or optimise their productivity. Nor can you effectively match them to tasks: whether you follow an American or European mindset (stereotypes in themselves, of course), you will want to play to strengths, develop areas of weakness and get people with complimentary skill sets working together. (Bill and Mary, for example, might jointly prepare impressive presentations.)

Meet with your team members regularly, using every opportunity to engage and motivate. Men and women are stereotypically motivated differently: women are seen to take work relationships personally, invest in work emotionally, join companies to be part of a team, connect with other players and deliver outstanding results. Men are judged to see workplaces as competitive, and while men are friendly towards colleagues, women more often relate to co-workers, clients and vendors as friends. But the best managers find ways to get each individual to become self-motivated to do their jobs well, matching recognition and reward to individuals rather than categories: both men and women are more complex than a gender label can possibly convey.

These are all, however, examples of day-to-day managing. Handling workplace gender difference also needs to consider variations in values, practices, processes, career paths, organisational structure, individual habits - and definitions of effective leadership. Issues such as equality in pay and promotion, and assumptions about women's lack of ambition go beyond any individual managers' ambit (regardless of the manager's own gender), and too many CEOs delegate responsibility for the empowerment of women to special committees, or to their (often predominantly female) HR departments. References to the issue as a "womens' thing" - which still happens far too often - indicates how much some men (and women) do not take the case for change seriously. The best companies manage people, not two distinct genders. Perhaps we should say that women are not feminising the workplace so much as humanising it?