Part Four: Scripts for Success

Scripts for Success: Communication Techniques to Break Through Gender Biased Workplaces

by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris

What follows is Part Four of an edited version of a chapter from our forthcoming book, Scripts for Success: Communication Techniques to Break Through Gender Biased Workplaces. We would welcome your thoughts and comments as we prepare the book for publication.

Research makes it clear that high self-monitors consistently and decisively beat out low self-Startup Stock Photosmonitors for career promotions. They advance further, and more often, than low self-monitors, whether they stay at one company or move from company to company.[1] There is no logical or empirical reason why this should be so if the judgment of superior job performance were based exclusively on the skill with which specific tasks or projects were performed. But if the judgment of superior job performance is also based on effectively cooperating with others, the quality of interpersonal communication, an ability to perform a variety of different roles, and being able to quickly respond to the needs and demands of a large number of diverse personalities and temperaments, then high self-monitors would clearly have a significant advantage in playing the promotion game. Moreover, this advantage would increase as the high self-monitors move up the career ladder and the jobs to be performed shifted away from specific tasks toward leadership, motivation, and coordination.[2]

As soon as we recognize that the successful manager is “the one who manages the good opinions of others,”[3] it ceases to be surprising that study after study has shown that high self-monitors hold more senior positions in businesses of all sorts than do low self-monitors.[4] “Managers may have the right ideas and skills, but unless their reputation, or others’ perceptions of their abilities, is valued, purchased and used by those in power, their management capital is worthless for their career advancement.”[5]

Andie: I was mentoring a young woman who had just started her career. She was finding that the techniques she had used in school to assure success were not working in business. She believed that the senior colleague with whom she worked most frequently did not like working with her. As I questioned her about her communication, I learned that, like many young women, she made it a practice of asking a lot of questions when she got an assignment. Young men generally don’t do this; they listen, learn the deadline, and say, “Got it, will do.” But my mentee would pepper her boss with questions right off the bat. My guess was that as a result of her behavior, her boss thought she was confused, slow on the uptake, and tentative rather than eager and committed. Instead of allowing him to explain what he was looking for in his own words, she was forcing him to communicate on her terms and by doing so she was annoying and frustrating him.

I suggested that she start asking only the most basic questions needed to orient herself. She should listen to what he had to say and then say something like “I’ll get right on it.” She should then—back in her office—think carefully about the assignment and identify the steps she would need to take to get it done. Only then—and only if necessary—should she go back to her boss with a few well organized, focused and concise questions posed in the context of just wanting “to be sure the two of them were on the same page.”

This young woman was skeptical, but she went along with my suggestions and over a relatively short period of time the whole work dynamic had changed. Her boss grew calmer in her presence, more respectful, and less frustrated. She realized that she had been really annoying him with her questions. By changing her communication, she began to create the impression that she was in control, competent, and highly motivated — and thus far more “promotable” than she had appeared before.

Women and Impression Management

The early research on self-monitoring and career advancement was done largely without regard to gender. But in 2002, Val Singh, Savita Kumra and Susan Vinnicombe published a ground-breaking study entitled, “Gender and Impression Management: Playing the Promotion Game.”[6] Singh and his colleagues found that women are significantly less willing to engage in self-monitoring than are men, but that when women do self-monitor, they gain a substantial promotional advantage over other women and men. In 2011, Olivia O’Neill and Charles O’Reilly III built on this study by tracking 132 female and male MBA graduates over an eight-year period.[7] They found that women who were high self-monitors were comfortable using agentic (traditionally male) behavior or nurturing (traditionally female) behavior (or both) as it seemed appropriate in particular situations. High self-monitoring women had a clear awareness of when agentic communication was called for and when nurturing or communal communication was needed. These high self-monitoring women received more job promotions than the low self-monitoring female MBAs (whether they were nurturing or agentic) and all of the male MBAs. In fact, high self-monitoring women received 1.5 times as many promotions as agentic men; 1.5 times as many promotions as nurturing women; 2 times as many promotions as nurturing men; and 3 times as many promotions as agentic women who were low self-monitors.[8]

The results of the O’Neill and O’Reilly study are striking and provide a strong argument for women learning attuned gender communication. As Singh notes, “[T]he prime reason for attempting to ‘manage’ the impression we create is that through the construction of ‘desirable’ social identities, our public selves come closer to our ideal selves. We seek to influence how we are perceived, and, therefore, the way in which others treat us.”[9] As a result, impression management “may directly impact material outcomes. For example, giving the impression that one is competent and ambitious can lead to benefits such as improved performance ratings and career enhancing opportunities.”[10]

Before O’Neill and O’Reilly’s study, most of the research about the effect of self-monitoring on women’s career success was conducted in laboratory settings, involving college students dealing with other students who were strangers. O’Neill and O’Reilly’s study confirmed these laboratory results in the real world of work, significantly increasing the importance of these results. There is now no reason to doubt that “[h]igh self-monitoring women exert more influence, [are] perceived as more valuable, and claim more resources [than men or other women].” [11] “[S]elf‑monitoring may be particularly important for women when the role is non-traditional to gender”; [12] and “self-monitoring may be a useful way for women to avoid the ‘backlash’ from the double bind, that is the social and economic ‘punishment’ agentic women generally experience when they seek to display leadership skills.”[13]

[1] Singh et al., supra note 16. The researchers conducted two studies. In the first study they studied female UK business school graduates and their male peers to investigate the frequency they reported using impression management to advance their careers. In the second study, they conducted 34 in-depth interviews of consultants in a large international management consulting firm based in the UK.

[2] Olivia O’Neill and Charles O’Reilly, Reducing the Backlash Effect: Self-Monitoring and Women’s Promotion, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2010), DOI: 10j11112044‑8325.2010.02088 x.

[3] Marguerite Rogoglioso, Women Who Display Masculine Traits – and Know When Not To – Get More Promotions Than Men, Stanford Graduate School of Business News, Tuesday March 1, 2011, citing O’Neill and O’Rilley (2010), http:\, website visited Jan. 28, 2014.

[4] Singh et al., supra note 16, at p. 78.

[5] S. Wayne and R. Liden, Effects of Impression Management on Performance Ratings: A Longitudinal Study, Academy of Management Journal, 38(1), 1995, pp. 232-260. See also Singh et al., supra note 16, at 78.

[6] Francis Flynn and Daniel Ames, What’s Good for the Goose May Not be Good for the Gander: The Benefits of Self-Monitoring for Men and Women in Task Groups and Dyadic Conflicts, Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 2006, pp. 272-281. See also O’Neill and O’Reilly, supra note 20, at p. 2.

[7] Anderson and Thacker, 1985, cited in O’Neill and O’Reilly, supra note 20, at p. 2.

[8] O’Neill and O’Reilly, supra note 20, at p. 2.

[9] Kilduff and Day, supra note 10, at p. 1055.

[10] Id., at p. 1056.

[11] D. Gowler and K. Legge, Rhetoric in Bureaucratic Careers: Managing the Meaning of Management Success, in Michael B. Arthur, Douglas T. Hall, and Barbara S. Lawrence (eds.), Handbook of Career Theory (University Press, Cambridge, Cambridge), 1989, pp. 437-453, at p. 447. See also Val Singh, Savita Kumra and Susan Vinnicombe, Gender and Impression Management: Playing The Promotion Game, Journal of Business Ethics, 37(1), April 2002, pp. 77-89, at p. 87.

[12] Kilduff and Day, supra note 10, at p. 1048.

[13] Singh et al., supra note 16, at p. 87.

Stay tuned for Part Five of this article…

This article originally appeared in the WBAI Winter 2015 Newsletter.

Andrea S. KramAndreaKramerer is a Partner in the international law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, resident in its Chicago office.




Al Harris-2Alton B. Harris is a Partner in the law firm of Nixon Peabody, resident in its Chicago office.