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The Glass Cliff

Imagine being offered the promotion you have been waiting for. It’s more money, more prestige, and a role where you can really shape the trajectory of your organization. Should you take the offer? It might seem like the answer will always be a resounding yes. It’s not. Here is what you might be missing: the glass cliff.


 

We’ve previously written about glass ceilings (invisible gender bias that keeps women from attaining as highly in the workplace as men) and glass escalators (the idea that men are propelled by an invisible force that pulls them up through the hierarchy). In this post, we want to cover another form of bias: the glass cliff.


The glass cliff refers to the fact that women – especially women who are members of racial minorities (and even racial minority men) – are often appointed to precarious leadership positions. Precarious means that the position has a high likelihood of failure, such as when a company is in rapid decline. The metaphor here is that there is an invisible risk to women who are promoted to these kinds of leadership positions – they are left teetering on the edge of a cliff that they could easily fall from.


Once you know about the glass cliff, you will notice it everywhere. When the UK voted to leave the European Union, then Prime Minister David Cameron resigned. Subsequently, Theresa May was voted in, to the most precarious leadership situation any Prime Minister of the UK had faced in decades: undoing Britain’s relationship with the European Union in a way that would be satisfactory to the half of the nation that wanted to leave and the half of the nation that wanted to stay. In fact, Theresa May was unable to succeed in the role – she fell off the glass cliff.


The glass cliff is a very robust and well-researched phenomenon. Companies that are failing are more likely to appoint a woman (and racial minority) to the position of CEO than companies that are succeeding. Political parties tend to run women candidates in seats that are hard to win. Sports teams that have been losing games tend to appoint men who are members of racial minorities as coaches. So, why is this the case? The answer is Think Crisis - Think Female.


Think Crisis – Think Female


One of the main reasons why women have difficulty attaining leadership positions is because our ideas about what it means to be an ideal leader are closely coupled with our ideas about men. That is, we think leaders should be dominant, assertive, and bold – qualities that we stereotypically assume men are more likely to possess than women. This is called think manager – think man.


However, our ideas about ideal leaders change when there is a crisis. In a crisis, we want leaders who can bring people together, foster cohesion, and encourage people to work hard through the crisis. These kind of skills are stereotypically associated with women, not men. Hence, when there is a crisis, we often prefer women leaders. This is one of the main reasons why women are appointed to precarious leadership roles where the probability of failure is high – stereotypes lead us to believe that women will make the best leaders in those situations.


Another reason women are appointed to glass cliffs is that during a crisis, companies often want to change directions. Organizations are complex systems and poor performance is usually a result of many, interrelated factors. But our brains usually fail to grasp this complexity, and alight on the most obvious cause for the crisis and therefore the most obvious candidate for change – the leader. Often a change in leadership is not enough – we want a leader who is maximally different to the current leader. As most leaders are men, this usually means appointing a woman.


Caught Between Ceiling and a Cliff


The Glass Cliff often puts women in an impossible situation. On the one hand, they are more likely to break through the glass ceiling and be offered a leadership position – but it's precarious, not safe. In fact, because people think women are better leaders in a crisis than men, they often evaluate the same, precarious leadership position as less risky for women than they do men. On the other hand, if women refuse precarious leadership positions, they remain beneath the glass ceiling, back vying for roles where stereotypes favor men, not women.


 

Take Action


1. When you are offered a leadership role, interrogate the position. What is the history of the group, team, or organization? What problems are they experiencing? What challenges will you face as a leader? What are the expectations, stated or unstated, that would mean success in that position – and are you being set up to achieve them?


Then, make an honest assessment – what is the probability you will succeed? In making this assessment, be careful not to fall prey to the optimism bias (the belief that you are less likely to experience a negative outcome than others). Ask people to check your reasoning. Ask experienced leaders whether they would take the role.


2. Improve your BATNA. A BATNA is your Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement – i.e., if you don’t take this role, what are your options? If you don’t want to get caught between a glass ceiling and a glass cliff, work on improving your options. Beyond obtaining multiple job offers, this could also mean negotiating a clear path to promotion in your current role, or considering whether there are lateral moves that would shift you into the promotion path that you truly deserve – one that is less precarious and more full of potential.


3. In some cases, a glass cliff offer is still an offer you cannot refuse. Perhaps this is the chance you have been waiting for; perhaps it would be impossible to work below someone else who takes the role; perhaps you truly believe you can take the team, department, or organization through the crisis at hand. We say, go for it. But socialize your decision effectively throughout your network, keep people in the loop of how it is going and the challenges you face, and document your wins where you can. If the position works out, then competitors far and wide will be trying to poach you. However, if the position does not work out, you will have a strong narrative to fall back on and so you will be prepared for the conversations to come, both internally and externally.


 

Get in Touch


Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming newsletters.


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