• Behaviour

Gender Approaches to Decision Making

Leadership decision making and the implications of male ‘thinking’ and female ‘feeling’ approaches


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The Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl who played detective Sophie Lund in ‘The Killing’ objected strongly to the standard response to Lund’s success – that it was down to her great female intuition. There was nothing in the story to support the ‘intuition’ theory; Lund was more successful than her male counterparts because she was more thorough in her detective work and her thinking.

Gråbøl was understandably incensed that viewers so easily assumed a stereotypically female cause for success. However, the idea that, as a rule, men tend to rely more on their objective ‘thinking’ capacity and women more on their values-driven ‘feeling’ capacity to make decisions has some credence. Women are more likely than men to take a values-driven, people-focused approach to decision-making.

For senior leadership teams, of course, decision making requires ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’. Empathy and EQ are proven to be essential attributes in leading complex modern organizations. So, ‘feeling’ should be highly prized and leadership teams should aim to balance strong thinking and feeling characteristics.

Unfortunately, a recent global survey by The Myers-Briggs Company, the business psychology provider, suggests this balance is not being achieved. The ‘feeling’ perspective is often lacking in leadership teams and that, even for organizations that do have women at higher levels, a values-driven approach to decision-making is underrepresented. Most probably this is because in selecting senior leaders there is an outdated tendency to go for ‘thinking’ stereotypes regarding the most effective leadership style.

According to Myers-Briggs a higher regard for ‘thinking’ over ‘feeling’ capabilities can make it more difficult for some women to be promoted to senior positions and for their careers to develop to their full potential. This may be a reason for the general under-representation of women at senior level and is evidence that must be relevant to the ongoing debate about gender parity at board level and about the gender-pay-gap.

The research conducted by The Myers-Briggs Company looked at data from 1.3 million people that have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment to investigate the role decision making plays in the workplace. The data reveals that women are generally associated with the ‘feeling’ preference, a value-driven approach to decision making, while men mostly use ‘thinking’, a preference that uses objectivity, logic and impersonal criteria to make decisions.

A rather surprising finding from this research was that only 30% of senior women leaders have a preference for making decisions using a value-driven ‘feeling’ approach, considering peoples’ personal circumstances, whereas 70% of senior women executives have a preference for using objectivity and impersonal ‘thinking’ criteria to make decisions. This indicates that even when women reach higher levels, a values-driven perspective is lacking in leadership. For men, there was little difference in the proportion of ‘thinking’ compared with ‘feeling’ between occupation levels.

It is no surprise to learn that amongst the 1.3 million fewer women than men reach senior positions and that women are over-represented at more junior levels. To complete the picture the research shows that for women in more junior positions, only just over half (55%) have a ‘thinking’ preference.

Speaking about the research findings, John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at Myers-Briggs said: “Over the past decade, we have witnessed diversity in the workforce produce positive business results and inspire more women to take on leadership roles. Despite this movement, our research shows that it may be difficult for women with ‘feeling’ preferences to be promoted to senior positions, while men are far more likely to reach a higher occupational level regardless of their personality preference. It seems that it is not the ‘feeling’ preference that is inherently undervalued – it is women with a ‘feeling’ preference who are being excluded from senior positions.”

“There is plenty of evidence to show that a ‘Feeling’ preference contributes to an effective leadership style. A value-driven approach to decision making does play a pivotal role in shaping the culture of organizations,” he concludes.

Read the Myers-Briggs Global Trends report here (the first chapter, ‘Delivering on Diversity’ covers this issue).

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