Who really makes the changes in an organisation? It’s not always the people with the highest executive titles. A growing body of research has pointed to the importance of informal leaders known to researchers as brokers, who have the gift of connecting employees in productive new ways.
New research by Raina A. Brands of the London Business School and Martin Kilduff of University College London has uncovered a bias surrounding brokerage roles within organisations that give advantages to male brokers and their teams.
Brands and Kilduff examined what are known as friendship networks within organisations. In this sense, friends are the people you turn to for help and advice, whether or not they are in your work group. Simply put, you trust them, Brands says. You may also talk to them about your personal life, although not necessarily.
It’s within these friendship networks that much of an organisation’s work gets done, Brands says, so the brokers in these groups are especially important.
In a study of two separate groups — employees of an electronic components distributor and a cohort of MBA students — she and Kilduff identified brokers based on the high level of connectivity they displayed. They also identified the people who were perceived by their colleagues to be brokers. (Perceived brokers are not always actual brokers.)
The researchers asked group members to evaluate their colleagues, including the actual and perceived brokers. This is where gender differences emerged. First of all, the researchers found that people tended to ignore the activities of female brokers and to exaggerate how much men served as brokers. Second, if women were recognised, they were perceived more negatively than their male counterparts.
“To the extent that women who were perceived to be brokers, they incurred reputational penalties,” Brands says. “They were seen as more competent, but less warm.” Other research, she says, has shown that men who take on brokerage roles tend to receive benefits in the form of compensation and promotions, whereas female brokers’ careers are negatively affected.
What accounts for this double standard? It could be that women who take on informal leadership roles are going against the gender-based grain by behaving assertively and decisively — qualities more traditionally associated with men, Brands says.
She and Kilduff also analysed the performance of the perceived brokers’ teams. They found that women who were thought by their teams to be brokers tended to perform well individually but at the expense of their overall team’s performance. Team performance may suffer as members react to what they perceive as stereotype violations, Brands says.