Despite great strides that have been made in the area of marriage equality and workplace rights, those in the sexual minority still find stigmas attached to them in the workplace, which m ay inhibit their advancement. Due to this, many gay and lesbian workers choose not to reveal their orientation to coworkers. At the same time, however, there are many successful leaders within various industries who identify as gay or lesbian.
According to Dr. Robyn Berkley, associate professor of management and marketing, aspects of one’s personality or personal experiences may help gay or lesbian leaders overcome challenges that can arise when integrating one’s personal identity with a professional life.
Berkley worked with a team of colleagues to consider how individual identity may impact the leader-follower relationship. The team, which also consisted of Dr. Roxanne Beard, Ohio Dominican University; Dr. Nicole Cundiff-Meyer, University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Nicholas Hoffman, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, explored these types of professional relationships since the workplace has seen a greater emphasis on relationships, with management styles increasingly referred to as “relationship focused” or “employee-oriented.”
The team began by looking at a 2006 study conducted by Kirk Snyder, USC Marshall School of Business, in which leadership styles of gays and lesbians were investigated as compared to that of their heterosexual counterparts. This study found that gay men reported being more relationship-oriented
than their lesbian or heterosexual counterparts, both male and female.
While Berkley thought these results were interesting, she said that little attention has been paid to how hidden identities, as in the case of secretly gay and lesbian workers, may affect how a leader is seen by others, or by him- or herself. It became more important to the research team to explore why some
workers with hidden identities believed they were more relationship-oriented.
The team hoped that this would reveal whether the results from Snyder’s study showed innate personality traits or characteristics that could be taught through intervention. The team found some secretly gay or lesbian workers surveyed had feelings of being an imposter, or of deceiving others about their identity. Most notably, however, those who were more likely to feel like an imposter also reported being more relationship-focused in the workplace.
According to Berkley, this information further spurred her team to uncover how, despite the increased stigma and feelings of being an imposter, individuals were driven to greater success as leaders. What they found, Berkley said, is that, “Even if they feel like an imposter, they can be more authentic if they have a firm belief they can be successful, even if they have not revealed their identity in the workplace.”
However, this alone is not enough to drive workers to become better leaders. More importantly, Berkley said, is having a high level of emotional intelligence. This enables an individual to manage and respond appropriately to the emotions of themselves and others.
“Given that gays and lesbians regularly have to monitor their environment for personal and professional safety,” Berkeley said, “the researchers believe gays and lesbians may be more prone to higher levels of emotional intelligence than heterosexuals on average.”
Berkley hopes that the research will influence workplace policies and practices, as well as Employment
Non-Discrimination legislation. “Good leaders can have a powerful impact on an organization’s success,” Berkley said. “Ultimately,” she continued, “organizations cannot afford to ignore a sizeable portion of their workforce who can have a value-added benefit on the organization’s bottom-line.”