Suzanne is an executive at a large French company in the energy sector. She is told that she will be leading the digital transformation project, a key cross-cutting project that will involve the whole company over the coming months, a role for which she will report directly to the CEO. The project was led until now by Jean-André. It had started in 2019 but, whether due to the COVID crisis or other factors, it was stagnating and was not delivering the desired results.  In proposing the role to her, she is told that one of the causes of the past failures was Jean-André’s inability to talk about the project to the people involved, in a convincing way and not being able to show enough empathy in communicating the changes that would involve the staff and thus the downward spiral of all the climate indicators, given the general discontent that the transformation is causing. The project also started because of the loss of market share that the company was experiencing, a loss that was amplified during the first year of the project.  Suzanne accepted the role with enthusiasm, telling herself that her appointment, in a corporate culture that historically prefers men in visible, highly political roles such as the one she had been offered, must be the result of a new wind, also brought about by the creation of the Diversity, Equality & Inclusion function, a wind that is blowing through the entire society and perhaps finally producing real change.

Since the mid-1970s, particularly thanks to Marylin Loden who first used the expression at a conference, the concept of the Glass Ceiling has made its appearance in organizational and gender studies. In essence, it refers to the series of structural (low pay, low status of assigned roles, etc.) and cultural barriers, in particular gender stereotypes, which mean that women’s careers often stop at middle management roles. More recent, however, is the emergence of the Glass Cliff phenomenon. This is a concept created in 2005 by two researchers, Michelle Ryan & Alexander Haslam. Impressed by a Times article inspired by research that seemed to show that women and minorities, particularly ethnic minorities, in leadership roles generate below-average performance, the researchers looked in more detail at the contexts in which women were appointed to senior positions.  One common feature emerged that completely challenges the findings of previous research, shifting the focus from individual capabilities to the field in which they can/cannot be expressed. The contexts in which those appointments were made, in fact, could be defined as ‘deep crisis’. And so, just like on a dangerous Glass Cliff, women appointed to leadership positions in these contexts multiplied the risk of failure, of being singled out as incapable even publicly, and the stress resulting from particularly strenuous conditions, which feeds the vicious circle of the glass cliff. It could be argued that success or failure in highly complex positions is influenced by many variables besides gender and crisis conditions. Numerous other studies have examined choices in fictitious scenarios that made it possible to isolate some variables, confirming the glass cliff phenomenon: women and minorities were preferred to white men in preference during crisis situations.

We might at this point ask ourselves: why is it that, during a crisis, it is easier for the Glass Ceiling in organisations (but also, as has been shown, in politics and sport) to be overcome, thereby putting categories hitherto excluded from power at high risk of failure? One possible explanation is that in these particularly delicate and difficult contexts, the skills sought after by those in leadership roles are different. If in ‘normal’ times, an agentic leadership is preferred, with characteristics of rapidity, assertiveness, determination, a leadership that is recognised above all in men, corresponding to the stereotype “Think manager, think male” (V.E. Schein, 1973), in difficult times instead “Think Crisis, Think Female”. The skills desired are different and preferably belong to the sphere of managing emotions, creating containers to manage resistance to change, empathy, attention to the problems of others. This is what Burns has defined as transformational leadership and the “communality” skills, considered (consciously or unconsciously) a “nice to have” in normal times, are recognised as central and allow women to be more seen as possible occupants of positions of power, because these skills correspond to the nurturing, maternal, relational female stereotype.

We could assume that this bias is one of the components that influenced the appointment in Suzanne’s case, which was presented at the beginning of the post. The offer of the role of director of a key, visible, important, and ‘political’ project comes after a failure. Suzanne arrives amidst a context of loss of market share, disastrous results from the project, falling climate indicators, general discontent, and a high risk of failure. This is another characteristic of the Glass Cliff phenomenon. Excessive positive projections are arriving on the chosen woman. A possible hypothesis to explain the failure dynamics of the Glass Cliff can be made starting from Wilfred Bion’s basic assumption of ‘dependence’ on the leader. The members of the organisation, confronted with their incompetence to work on the task, project all the power to get out of this failed situation onto the appointed woman. If she introjects the organisational projection, the stress generated by the risk of not succeeding and the realisation that the conditions for success are not met, can generate, on a personal level, an effective impossibility to act to the best of one’s potential.  This personal dynamic is also paralleled by a system dynamic. The actors and actresses of the organisation, projecting all power onto the person of the leader, are deprived of responsibility for the transformation, the expectation, conscious and unconscious, is that the work will be done by someone else.

Another bias can be the cause of appointing a woman in this kind of situation. It is an unconscious desire, on the part of an organisational culture based on male stereotypes of success, to maintain the status quo and thus to see the appointed woman fail, so that the idea that power is a man’s thing can be confirmed.

In our individual and collective accompaniment work, we have encountered the Glass Cliff not only on gender but also on specific roles – perhaps because they are perceived as deeply challenging the status quo, comparing to others more traditional function and roles, for example in sales, marketing, production and so on.  – in particular those that accompany, in various ways, Corporate Social Responsibility, or Responsible Investment. There are cases in which organisations seem to have set up the role in order to show that change is not possible, or that it is only on the shoulders of the person or function that takes it on, freeing the rest of the members of the company from responsibility. The person taking the role, in these cases, whether male or female, is acting on a very dangerous slope, from which it is easier to fall than to be effective.

As with all biases, the underlying unconscious dynamics of the Glass Cliff can be very mobilising and remain implicit if individually and collectively we cannot find the right distance to name them and the will to transform them.

What might be some concrete paths for doing so? Here are some clues that we have worked during Suzanne’s coaching, before she stepped into the role:

  1. Before taking on the role, Suzanne must carefully negotiate the resources that will be made available to her, commensurate with the importance of the project, the expected results, the impacts. She has to set, together with the direction, realistic and measurable indicators of success to anchor her action in reality. One of the most important resources for success is precisely the visible commitment of the company’s top management and CEO, which must be clear and well-defined from the outset and, if necessary, revised following feedback during the action.
  2. A second step is to build a map of possible allies, create a strong network that can support her and provide her with resources to achieve her goals.
  3. Another important element is a groundwork on the organisational culture, on the one hand to bring out the mental models and to transform them, on the other hand to clarify everyone’s expectations and responsibilities regarding the digital transformation project. The glass cliff becomes less dangerous if one is not alone in walking along it.
  4. Even deeper work involves clarifying stated and acted organisational leadership models and collectively questioning these models. Suzanne will need not only transformational leadership skills to enable her to deal with the emotional side and the resistance to transformation, but also agentic skills, when for example she will have to decide which practices to abandon because they no longer bring organisational vitality and how distruptive the change will have to be for the organisation. These competences are precisely those which, in contexts where gender stereotypes are present and unconsciously guide people’s gaze, appreciation and judgement, find it difficult to be seen and accepted when they are expressed by women, from whom determination, assertiveness, speed and risk-taking are not collectively expected. The regenerative leadership model proves to be much more useful and inclusive, to get away from two-way models that risk reinforcing these stereotypes.