Female leaders and the agreeableness paradox

Female leadership and agreeable paradox

The second time I presented a paper at an international conference it was a disaster.  I’d felt so anxious the first time, that I’d prepped excessively for the second run.

At one point, four or five people walked out of the room.  I knew these things happen at large, international conferences, because multiple sessions take place at the same time and people select the talks they want to listen to.

Nevertheless, I heard myself saying, “I’m sorry.”  Yes, I did.

I’m sorry.  Really?  These people were walking out on me and I was the one to apologise?

This is what high Interpersonal Sensitivity looks like.  You’re so attuned to other people that you feel that all their behaviours are reactions to your actions.

Of the seven scales comprised in the Hogan Personality Inventory, only one shows a clear gender difference: Interpersonal Sensitivity (aka ‘Agreeableness’).  And yes, you guessed it–women score higher.

This article explores how effective leaders need the right amount of Interpersonal Sensitivity.  Too much, and they’ll compromise the team’s objectives; too little, and they’ll demotivate their followers.

Because people’s fundamental concerns are survival and collaboration, personality could be defined, in part, as how one attempts to do two things: getting ahead and getting along.  Getting ahead entails achieving status and power–the hunter’s mentality. Getting along with others ensures peaceful coexistence and collaboration–the nurturer’s mentality.

One of the traits that describe your “getting along” style is Interpersonal Sensitivity (IS).  It measures how easy you are to live with, how sensitive you are to other people’s wants and needs, or how much you care about what others think of you.

Think of it this way: in your relationship with other people, do you take into consideration how they may feel about what you do and say to them?  Can you read people well and approach them in ways that generate the best outcome for them?  Do you make sure that everybody agrees and is happy with your decisions?

If you do, it means you’re agreeable and your IS score is probably high.  And if you’re a woman, you probably do.

In a 2015 study that analysed personality reports of 6,000 working adults, a researcher at Hogan Assessment Systems found that employment level was the most important differentiator in personality traits.  Male and female managers were found to be, for example, more ambitious than male and female non-managers, and male and female corporate executives to be more ambitious than male and female managers.

All other personality scales showed similar patterns, except for IS, for which the opposite was true.  The higher on the corporate ladder, the lower the IS score.  And women at all levels scored higher than men at all levels.

Why interpersonal sensitivity matters

Leadership has two facets: emergence – you are seen as a leader and are likely to become one – and effectiveness – you are a good leader.  In a previous post, we showed that the qualities that make you a good leader are not the ones you need for others to see you as a leader.

Indeed, in order to “emerge” as a leader, you need to prioritise “getting ahead” over “getting along”–the hunter’s mentality.

But to be an effective leader, you need to understand others and care about what’s good for them–the nurturer’s mentality.  If your priority were always to get ahead, you’d end up utilising your followers in your own benefit.  This, besides unethical, would be a strong de-motivator for your team.

However, and here’s the Goldilocks dilemma, caring too much about others’ wants and needs could lead you to become passive, acquiesce, compromise, and aim low.


When your IS is too high, competing with people you care about puts you in an uncomfortable position, because for you to win, someone else needs to lose.  As a result, you won’t show your desire to lead because that would create a confrontation between you and someone else.

But you can’t shy away from competition if you want to become a leader.  You have to be ready to demonstrate you’ll be a better leader than your competitor.  If you don’t, why would someone pick you to lead?

Handling Conflict

When your priority is to get along, you avoid conflict and disagreement because you perceive it as a breach between you and the other person.  For you, being on different sides of an issue is equivalent to being unable to cooperate.

But conflict and disagreement, this Harvard Business Review article points out, are critical for the progress of teams and projects.  A bad idea can be mistaken for a good one when no one dares to disagree.


Your fear of damaging the relationship with others can mislead you into thinking that taking a firm stance on a matter will make others walk out on you, hence preventing collaboration.  Therefore, you tend to acquiesce, putting your own goals at risk.

Margaret Thatcher put it this way: “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and would achieve nothing.”  Ulysses wouldn’t be what it is had James Joyce tried to please publishers and complied with censors’ rules.


The most difficult aspect of a negotiation is how you balance your and your counterparty’s interests.  You don’t want to be so strong in your ask that you ruin the relationship, and you don’t want to leave value on the table either.

So, if you are too sensitive to other people’s wills, you’ll be tempted to aim lower than you could because you don’t want to ruffle any feathers–that’d make them disapprove of you.  As a result, you cave in fast.


If you always considered how other people might respond to your actions and communication, you’d doubt your decisions and seek consensus for every step you decided to take.

At some point, though, the leader has to lead.


Carolina Perez Sanz

Carolina Perez Sanz  joined Templar in 2017, bringing with her 20 years of diverse, international experience as a communications consultant. Carolina is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and French. She holds a PhD in Linguistics from the Complutense University of Madrid as well as an MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication from New York University.

Carolina is certified in the Hogan suite of personality assessment tools for success in the workplace, composed of the Hogan Personality Inventory, Hogan Development Survey and Motives Values Preferences Inventory.




Send an Enquiry