A recent Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) study found that executives at high-performance organizations are over 1.5 times more likely to indicate the gender diversity of their workforce as a “high” or “very high” priority.
Yet, as many metrics and the personal experience of countless women make clear, roadblocks and challenges continue to exist for women.
My colleagues and I turned to network data collected from more than 30 organizations and 16,500 people over 15 years to explore how women develop the relationships critical to career success. We also conducted hundreds of interviews, looking to provide guidance and support for women as they take on new roles and grow their careers.
One aspect of the research identified network drivers that enabled some women to be successful whether or not they were in the gender majority. Overall, we learned that four critical networking practices distinguished high-performing women from their less successful contemporaries.
1. Invest in boundary-spanning ties.
High performers have long been distinguished by networks that bridge into pockets of expertise more broadly. It is the breadth or structural diversity of one’s network—particularly early-stage problem solving—that distinguishes high performers, not the number of people one knows. In fact, just knowing a lot of people often has a negative impact on performance.
Women fall out of the upwardly mobile category when they don’t tap broad networks to get work done and to increase exposure to important stakeholders. Recent research suggests that women who form strong and tightly knit connections with each other are more likely to achieve leadership positions than are other women (and men) as long as they also have boundary-spanning relationships.
2. Seek efficiency.
At every level in their organizations, women in our study were more likely to be sought by their coworkers for information and advice but—at junior and senior levels—were less likely than men to seek information and advice from others. This pattern leaves them particularly susceptible to the performance degradation and burnout associated with collaborative overload.
The good news is that engaging in just a handful of behaviors can help women—and men!—create more efficient networks, typically returning 18–24% of collaborative time. Our findings suggest that certain behaviors are particularly relevant to women. For example, women were far less likely than men to block out time each day for reflective work or to periodically review their calendar to remove non-essential requests, decisions or meetings. By not imposing structure, women give themselves fewer opportunities to engage in higher-level thinking, and they are jeopardizing performance as they incur the switching costs of moving from one cognitive task to another.
3. Balance stickiness and churn.
Women in our study demonstrated a greater stickiness in their relationships over time. We found that women were much more likely than men to form and maintain same-sex relationships. Further, women’s relationship grew stronger and more mutual over time. In contrast, men were more likely to build relationships with either gender, adapting their networks instrumentally to meet shifting work demands.
These different ways of approaching work relationships have significant implications. On one level, greater relational stickiness may deepen collaborative overload as women feel ever-more obligated to respond to demands for their time or attention.
Another concern is that network churn—forging new relationships and letting others go dormant—is a critical component of network effectiveness. People whose networks stagnate may not be reaching out to new stakeholders or collaborators. Worse, they may be creating tightly knit echo chambers, blocking out new ideas and perspectives.
In new roles, in work contexts characterized by a greater velocity of change or where project teams form and disperse rapidly, relational stickiness is even more problematic. Women (and men) who do not adapt their networks may fall behind those who do adapt their networks more fluidly.
4. Create a foundation of trust.
Two forms of trust—competence-based and benevolence-based trust—are foundational to innovation and effective collaboration. Without benevolence-based trust—trust that you have my interests in mind—people are reluctant to put forth and debate new or different ideas and perspectives. Without competence-based trust—trust that you are able to do what you say—people don’t value the feedback and insights that they receive and so don’t bother to share their ideas.
Building trust—along with generating purpose and energy—are the markers of the biggest predictor of high performance for men and women: Being an energizer. Both men and women were more likely to identify women as energizing, suggesting women may have an edge when it comes to being an energizer.
As with other aspects of this work, it can be difficult to tease out when gender stereotypes or bias are at play in terms of perceptions of trust, purpose and energy. But what we do know is that by focusing on these four network strategies, women can reshape and strengthen their networks and build the relationships needed to grow professionally.
Read more about countering implicit bias and helping women advance in their careers in our white paper, How Successful Women Manage Their Networks. Plus, the collaborative overload card deck and online assessment can help women navigate the many competing demands they face. And new resources to address the BEST practices during role transitions are coming in 2020!Share!