People more willing to follow advice when leaders use confident tone

In leadership, people typically assume that when women use assertive language, they may be subject to insults

ANNE-MARIE GREGGS, Evergreen reporter

Male and female leaders who use a confident tone are more likely to be listened to, WSU researchers found.

A study shows gender discrimination does not affect participants’ willingness to follow advice, said Shanthi Manian, assistant professor in the WSU School of Economic Sciences. 

About 1,000 participants were randomly assigned a male or female leader and played a difficult video game while following their leader’s advice to win the game, she said.

The participants were given an incentive in the game to follow or not follow the advice from their leader to achieve victory, Manian said. The better the participant’s outcome in the game, the more money they received.

“The leaders in our game are advising a particular play, and they, the subjects, are deciding whether to follow that advice or do something different,” she said.

The study shows no gender discrimination in this experiment. Further research needs to be completed to determine if this is applicable to real-world leadership positions, Manian said.

One reason that people are more willing to listen to someone, male or female, who uses a confident tone is because language that implies gender identity is impressionable based on who is speaking, she said.

On average, across all participants, assertive language was considered more masculine, Manian said.

Another reason is that there is a space in which assertive language does not trigger gender norm violations, she said.

The space is subtle enough to go under the radar of the backlash effect that is the usual response to gender norm violation, Manian said.

It is assumed that in leadership when women use masculine language, they are sometimes insulted and called words like bossy, said Ketki Sheth, principal investigator and UC Merced assistant economic professor.

Using assertive language did not change how much the participants liked the leaders, Sheth said.

Two leaders were in the experiment, a man and a woman. These leaders had pre-recorded a script, saying the same phrases during gameplay, Manian said. The leaders were also described by age, education, major and university year.

“The way that we figure out how people are responding differently to their leaders is by comparing how the player performs relative to someone else given a male versus female leader,” Sheth said.

The descriptions were the exact same, except for gender. These controlled variables made sure that the study isolates gender as the only difference in leadership, she said.

As part of the experiment, participants were asked survey questions, such as “What did you think of this language? Was it masculine or feminine?” and “What did you think of your leader?” Sheth said.

The researchers wanted to know where backlash against female leaders comes from, she said. 

Gender discrimination against leaders was expected in this experiment, and the researchers found it surprising that there was little to no backlash when gender norms were violated, Manian said.