If you’re like most people, there are times in your career when your part of the favored in-group. And, there are other times when you feel completely left out. This is the case for both men and women. But when it comes to leadership, more women are left out than men.
What is an In-Group?
So, what exactly is an in-group? It’s a type of informal network that’s present in every industry across the globe. This could include informal group meetings, lunches, dinners, drinks, football pools or attending sporting events. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into one of these informal networks, you’re in the in-group.
Think about the conditions surrounding an informal network. You’re usually in a fun, relaxed environment. You tend to let your guard down, and so do others. You share personal information, get to know each other better and build relationships. And, you may also get caught up on the latest industry or company news. These are all very positive outcomes that could help your career down the road – and many people aren’t aware of the downstream benefits.
For many women, people of color and some men, they experience a lack of access to these informal networks. In the MBA program where I teach, one of my students shared that she has worked at a tech company store for the past two years. She enjoys her job and her coworkers but has been frustrated with her lack of advancement. Recently, she found out that a group of her male colleagues had been meeting every week for drinks for two years and have enjoyed close relationships and promotions. The student gets along with everyone at the store and wondered why she had not known about this group or never been invited.
Most of these informal networks are made up of men. Of course, women also have informal networks, but they are not as prevalent and tend to be more inclusive. Selection for these informal networks or in-groups is largely based on affinity bias. Which means we tend to favor, invite, support and help people who are like us or those with whom we have a common bond.
In-Group Bias and Leadership
Informal networks don’t only occur among colleagues—they involve leadership, too. Think of a leader you know. Does this leader have favorites? If you answered yes, you’re acknowledging the foundation of a practice called leader-member exchange (LMX). It’s a fancy name for something very simple. The theory argues that because of time pressures, leaders establish a special relationship with a small group of their followers. These individuals make up the in-group and are trusted, receive a disproportionate amount of the leader’s attention, and are more likely to receive special privileges. Other followers fall into the out-group.
You can probably imagine the problems with this practice. Leaders induce LMX by rewarding employees with whom they want a closer linkage and punishing those with whom they do not. For the relationship to remain intact, the leader and follower must invest in the relationship.
How does a leader choose who’s in which group? As I’ve written in my book “The Power of Perception,” it’s based on bias: “Leaders often hire, promote and support followers based on friendships, loyalties and people who are like them, instead of skills or competencies. In-group members have demographic, attitude and personality characteristics similar to those of their leader.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, “leaders and followers of the same gender tend to have closer […] relationships than those of different genders,” according to Stephen Robbins and Timothy Judge. What’s the result? In-group members have higher performance ratings, engage in more helping behaviors at work, have a greater commitment to the organization and report greater satisfaction with their superiors. Out-group members feel left out and have more negative work attitudes and higher levels of withdrawal behavior and turnover.
So, here’s the bottom line. If most leaders are male (and they are), and leaders choose in-group members who are like them, then a large portion of out-group members will be women. This realization has tremendous implications for both leadership and talent and is a significant contributing factor to the global leadership gender gap.
What Can We Do?
First, we need to aware of what constitutes an informal network and the power it can have on an individual’s performance, job satisfaction and promotional opportunities.
Second, we need to be aware of our biases when engaging in or inviting others to be part of an informal network. Even the most innocuous event, such as a football pool, can create an in-group and cause those who don’t participate to be in the out-group.
Third, leaders need to resist the temptation to play favorites and need to be more inclusive in all their behaviors — a practice that should apply to each of us.
I dive deeper into these issues in my best-selling book, The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, and the Gender Divide.
To learn more and access free resources, you can go to my website at drshawnandrews.com.
Article posted on Forbes.com and ForbesWomen.com on Nov 21, 2019