By Adi Gaskell
Self-managed teams are a central element of new management trends such as Holacracy, with exponents arguing that such teams are often more effective, engaged and efficient. One thing they may not be however, is particularly equal, at least according to new research from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, which explains that women are likely to experience inequality when working in self-managing teams.
The research revealed that women in self-managed teams appeared to make 25% less than their male counterparts. The outcome was not a result of their lower productivity levels, but rather the fact that women in such teams appear to be compensated below what they’re worth, and men often more than they’re worth.
The popularity of self-managed teams has grown considerably in recent years, especially in the technology sector, where companies such as Google and Facebook are particular advocates. The theory is that they provide greater flexibility, are more creative and are more in tune with the way young people wish to work today. Tasks are usually allocated based upon the strengths of each employee, with remuneration then awarded based upon the contributions of each person.
That’s the theory at least, but the paper suggests that the reality is not quite as rosy. The researchers followed the self-managed teams in a Chinese company with around 930 employees for 50 months. The analysis revealed that the men consistently extracted better remuneration from their work than their female peers, despite exhibiting no noticeable productivity advantages over them.
The discrepancy was no mere trifle either, with the men earning 24% more than their equally productive female counterparts. The finding is a concern, as while the gender pay gap is a well known phenomenon in hierarchical workplaces, the findings show that it’s also present in more organic and self-managed teams.
While the study was conducted in China, the authors believe the implications are just as relevant for the numerous organizations that deploy self-managed teams across the western world.
“Social interactions between men and women have consistencies across culture, across economic class, across age,” they explain. ”Show me the culture where women don’t tend to get worse negotiation or bargaining outcomes.”
It’s a situation famously chronicled by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who argues forcefully that society has evolved to over promote incompetent male managers. A few years ago he wrote a provocative article for HBR where he argued that the challenge of getting more women into leadership positions could be helped if we shifted our perception of what leaders actually need to be. The problem was less one of not selecting enough female leaders, but that we pick too many utterly hopeless male ones.
It’s a thesis that he expanded upon in a recently published book, in which he calls out the numerous examples of poor leadership, and suggests that the solution is to have much higher expectations of our male leaders than we do today.
He argues that we typically associate leadership with masculine features, which in turn causes us to regard female leaders (who don’t display such features) negatively. This is highlighted in studies showing that despite actual behavior being identical between male and female employees, we still tend to promote men into leadership roles more than women.
This appears to be the case in self-managed teams, with women found to exhibit more prosocial behavior that sees them care more for others and act for their benefit, which despite appearing to be good qualities to have in both a leader and a team mate, are linked by the researchers to their lower income as they correspond with a lower willingness to self-promote and push their own cause.
Therefore, you had a scenario where despite being the best performers in the team, women were paid significantly less than their lower performing (male) peers.
So what can be done to improve matters? The researchers believe that while self-managed teams create the impression of being autonomous, they nonetheless require careful oversight to ensure that they operate in an equitable manner. It’s not good enough to pass off responsibility for these things to the teams themselves, and managers should still work to ensure bias and discrimination don’t emerge.
“Do you have safeguards in place to ensure that the person who gets all the credit, who gets the rewards, who gets the best task is not simply the one who bargains the best or bargains the most aggressively?” the researchers remark.
It’s a challenge that Chamorro-Premuzic argues is crucial to the wellbeing of our organizations. He believes that in many ways, women are better suited to the challenges of modern leadership, as they are often better at managing people (whereas men are better at managing tasks), which fits into a modern world that requires strong people management skills to work alongside technology that has automated many of the more routine and task-based jobs. In a world where things like creativity and emotional intelligence are key, then female leaders should be coming to the fore.
Whilst there have been numerous attempts to get more representative leadership therefore, he argues that until we are able to create a world in which leaders are evaluated objectively rather than subjectively, our perceptions of what leaders should look and act like will tend to trump the reality of what we need our leaders to be.