Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard.
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo.
Theresa May, England.
What do these three women have in common? They have all experienced the phenomenon known as the “glass cliff.”
First described in 2005 by University of Exeter researchers Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam, the glass cliff is a form of discrimination in which women are more likely to be promoted or hired into leadership roles during times of crisis — when the odds of failure are higher.
Researchers have proposed multiple reasons for the existence of this phenomenon. In 2011, psychologists Susanne Bruckmüller, then of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and Nyla R. Branscombe of the University of Kansas identified two possible causes: a “status quo bias” and gender stereotypes. “As long as a company headed by men performs well, there’s no perceived need to change its pattern of male leadership. Only if male leaders have maneuvered an organization into trouble is a switch to a female leader preferred.” Furthermore, when an organization is in crisis, they wrote, people tend to believe that “stereotypically female attributes (such as communication skills and the ability to encourage others)” are what the organization needs to turn things around.
COVID-19 and the Glass Cliff
Organizations worldwide are currently experiencing an unprecedented crisis, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government and business leaders alike have had to respond to this crisis in courageous and uncomfortable ways, and they have done so with varying approaches — and to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Many media outlets have observed that female leaders seem, by and large, to be responding better than male leaders. In May, New York Times journalist Amanda Taub pointed to Jacinda Ardern (prime minister of New Zealand), Angela Merkel (chancellor of Germany) and Tsai Ing-wen (president of Taiwan) as examples of leaders who appear to have eradicated the coronavirus or at least kept mortality rates lower than other countries.
“We should resist drawing conclusions about women leaders from a few exceptional individuals acting in exceptional circumstances,” she wrote. There are, after all, men who have shown great leadership during this crisis and women whose leadership has led to poorer outcomes. “But experts say that the women’s success may still offer valuable lessons … The presence of a female leader may be a signal that a country has more inclusive political institutions and values.” Indeed, male leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and England’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson face gender norms that can make it more difficult for them to display the caution that can lead to improved outcomes in health crises.
Some experts caution, however, that despite female leaders’ apparent success in this area, they may still be at risk of the glass cliff, whether they’re political leaders or business leaders. The tendency to identify more feminine leadership traits with effective leaders in a crisis “may be intensified as significant numbers of businesses grapple with finding answers with how to stabilize and strengthen during COVID-19 and the aftermath,” says Phyllis Reagin, a leadership coach and founder of At the Coach’s Table.
The Role of Leadership Training
In 2018, Training Industry research identified another possible cause of the glass cliff: leadership training, or a lack thereof. In a survey of both men and women holding a spectrum of leadership roles in a range of industries, men were more likely than women to report having received effective leadership training, and women were more likely than men to report having received training in change management. There was no way to know, based on this data, whether those women had received that training in preparation for or in response to a “glass cliff” role. However, it is another interesting piece to add to the puzzle.
In fact, effective change management training may help women on the glass cliff beat the odds and lead their organization to a successful outcome.
What Is Change Management Training?
Change management is a set of practices that help individuals and organizations successfully adapt to, work through and succeed in major changes and disruptions to their teams, companies, industries or broader society. When applied to leadership, these practices can help anyone from a team manager to a senior executive lead a group of people through a crisis.
“Change management training can help female leaders in the wake of this or any crisis, because it provides structure and method to the natural way women lead,” says Ranjjit Sidhu, founder of the professional development company ChangeQuest. “This structure can help minimize risks and avoid the glass cliff situation.”
In their 2005 article sharing their initial study on the glass cliff, Ryan and Haslam wrote, “In a time of a general financial downturn in the stock market, companies that appointed a woman had experienced consistently poor performance in the months preceding the appointment.”
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the stock market — which means, if Ryan and Haslam’s research holds true, businesses appointing female leaders at the top of their organizations may be setting them up for failure. Training can help.
“Leaders who are constantly honing their emotional intelligence and change management skills will fare far better when change does happen,” wrote John Wright, president of Eagle’s Flight, in a 2017 TrainingIndustry.com article. By equipping women with these skills before they are in the position of leading in a crisis, organizations can help ensure that they succeed — which, in the case of COVID-19, can be a matter of life or death for many people.