Respectful leadership – A natural for female leaders

Suzanne van Gils

Collaboration between female managers and male employees can be less productive for several reasons, but respect can turn this around.

Globalization increasingly means employees must collaborate with others who are different from themselves, or who have contrasting expectations. For managers who often have to unify diverse teams, these dissimilarities are challenging.

An international team of researchers, including myself, studied how respectful leadership is key in overcoming these challenges, particularly for female leaders.


Research in organizational psychology clearly shows the value of diversity when accompanied by perspective taking (considering viewpoints, feelings, and reactions of others) and sharing information. However, when sharing processes are absent, employees work more smoothly with those who are similar to themselves.

Employees also find it easier to work with and for managers who fit their mental image of a manager. Unfortunately for female managers the mental image of leadership is still predominantly male. As a result, female managers working with male employees face two challenges at the same time; they are dissimilar to their employee in terms of gender, and they do not fit the automatic manager image of the employee. Because of this, collaboration between female managers and male employees can be less productive, resulting in lower performance by the employee.


We propose that respectful leadership could be key to moving beyond initial impressions of gender differences and gender role expectations. Earlier research shows that respect is the most desired aspect of work and that it helps managers develop positive relationships with employees.

Respectful leaders acknowledge employees as full-fledged counterparts, they communicate the intention to treat them fairly and honestly and show a genuine interest in the employees’ opinions. A survey of 214 employees and their direct managers confirms that, for female managers, respect positively influences employee performance. This suggests that respectful leadership helps employees to look beyond their expectations and mental models of managers and move towards productive collaboration.

This approach especially benefits female managers working with male employees. The team concluded that respectful leadership, could eventually accustom especially male followers to female leaders, ultimately overcoming the ‘think manager–think male’ stereotype.

My more recent research has found that respectful leadership also helps managers who differ from their employees’ expectations due to other differences, such as educational background. Thus, respectful leadership by managers may be the key for productive collaboration in diverse teams.


A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 89 percent of Americans want a safe and respectful workplace. In an ideal situation, respect is an inherent part of the workplace culture where both managers and employees treat each other respectfully. If this is not the case, managers can take the first step and be a role model for respectful leadership.

According to the Pew report, when it comes to being a role model for respectful leadership, “on several aspects of corporate leadership, many give women the edge”. These include creating a safe and respectful workplace and valuing people from different backgrounds.


Key components of respectful leadership are social skills and social awareness, and part of employing respectful leadership is respectful communication. This requires respectful inquiry; being aware of the questions you ask and what you say when you probe or investigate ideas. This includes:'

  • Being honest in searching for alternative ideas, opinions, data, and solutions.
  • Asking for others’ opinions and assessments
  • Inviting examination and challenge of own ideas and opinions
  • Recognizing employees’ work and taking it seriously
  • Communicating trust in the employee to solve tasks, even if the employee’s approach is somewhat different from your own.

Vogt, C., van Gils, S., Van Quaquebeke, N., Eckloff, T. & Grover, S. The roles of respectful leadership and leader group prototypicality on employee personal initiative: A substitution effect (Under review)

van Gils, S., Van Quaquebeke, N., Borkowski, J., & van Knippenberg, D. (2018). Respectful leadership: Reducing performance challenges posed by leader role incongruence and gender dissimilarity. Human relations, 71(12), 1590-1610.

Van Quaquebeke, N., & Felps, W. (2018). Respectful inquiry: A motivational account of leading through asking questions and listening. Academy of Management Review, 43(1), 5-27.

Published 12. August 2020

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