Battle of the Bosses: Men May Take More Heat for Mistakes

Angry boss. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Guys who are in charge at their jobs should be wary when they slip up, as new research finds male leaders are judged more harshly than their female counterparts for their errors. The macho-mistakes' finding held for male-dominated fields, like construction work, the researchers added.

Female leaders in such fields were judged less harshly, possibly because they are expected to fall short in masculine settings, the research team concludes.

In the study, 284 undergraduates who had, on average, almost three years of work experience, read fictional emails that described a male or female leader's behavior in two strongly gendered fields, nursing and construction. The emails included accounts of errors the leaders had made: task errors, such as mismanaging an order for supplies, and relationship errors, such as losing his or her temper. (The leaders were given stereotypically Caucasian names, Bill or Barbara Smith, to avoid activating effects of ethnicity.)

In an online survey, the participants then evaluated the leaders, and indicated their willingness to work for them.

Not surprisingly, the surveys revealed that errors matter.

"Leaders who made mistakes were viewed as less task- and relationship-competent, desirable to work for and effective than leaders who did not," writes the team, led by Christian Thoroughgood from Pennsylvania State University, in research detailed recently in the Journal of Business and Psychology.

Gender, too, mattered in their results.

The undergrads evaluated "Bill Smith" more negatively than "Barbara Smith" when the two were described as construction foremen. But when the errant leaders were identified as head nurses, the undergrads had similar perceptions of both male and female leaders.

Since this research was conducted using "paper people" (or fictitious) scenarios, "caution should be given to the generalizability of our findings to cases of leader error in real-world organizations," write the researchers.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.