06/09/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

I Promise Not to Be Cheery If You Promise to Stop Stereotyping

If you're a woman in the workplace, you need to stop smiling. Why? Because according to a just-released study from economic researchers at Technische Universität München (TUM) in Germany, "women [leaders] who looked cheerful were judged to be less willing to lead" than men who displayed similar emotions -- by both men and women. That bit of management "insight" comes hot on last week's news from a study from the Pew Research Center had conservative pundits on Fox Business decrying breadwinner moms as representative of "something going terribly wrong in our society."

What's actually representative of "something going terribly wrong in our society," is the fact that we're still discussing, debating and dissecting research on stereotypically masculine or feminine behaviors of people in leadership. A few years ago, Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization, released a report that covered much of the same ground as the TUM researchers. They found that perceptions about stereotypically masculine behaviors, such as assertiveness and taking charge, left women in a bind. According to their findings, women were "too soft, too tough, and never just right," "competent or likeable, but rarely both," and that female leaders faced "higher standards and lower rewards than male leaders."

While this research is interesting, it hasn't moved the discussion forward or solved the problem. If we're truly interested in ensuring that women have a stronger platform from which to lead, there are steps we can all take today.

  • We need to stop with the stereotypes and get to the specifics. Instead of talking in generalizations and clichés -- about whether a leader is risk taker or nurturer -- we need to be discussing the gender-neutral leadership behaviors of today: consulting, networking, delegating, planning, influencing upward, problem-solving, inspiring others, rewarding, intellectually stimulating, role modeling, mentoring, supporting, monitoring and team building.
  • We need to remember that leadership isn't static, it's situational. Today's leaders can't settle for being captains -- they also need to be coaches, visionaries, sages, straight shooters and rain makers. The demands of business change daily and successful leaders adapt their styles to the situations in which they find themselves.
  • We need to lead teams and individuals. The best leaders win the loyalty of their teams by earning it individual by individual. Successful situational leadership also demands that managers reach their direct reports where they are in terms of their own career development and understanding.
  • We need to understand that differences drive results. Diverse teams do better. While it may be harder to come to consensus when everyone has a different point of view, a decision that's debated is likely to be richer and more nuanced than one reached by yes-men.

While I may not be one of those "cheerful" women from the TUM research, I am hopeful that the attention to women in the workplace over the past two weeks may finally lead us away from gender stereotyping to real discussions and real changes that will make the workplace better for all of us -- men and women alike.