Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. After last week's insurrection, the Capitol Police force has already seen personnel shakeups in the wake of violence. Last week, Capitol Police Chief, Steven Sund, announced his resignation and at least two officers have also been suspended for their roles in enabling the insurrectionists and at least 10 other officers are under investigation. The personnel response from the Capitol Police has been Swift. Yogananda Pittman was named acting chief of the force.
Chief Pittman comes to the role after serving as an assistant chief and is the first Black person and first woman to hold the top position. While her appointment is a significant achievement, Pittman is also being tasked with overseeing the department at a time of crisis, one that has brought national scrutiny to the Capitol Police and Pittman is not alone. Professionals of color are often promoted or elected to positions of power in times of crisis.
We've seen a record number of people of color recently elected to Congress as well as Kamala Harris being elected to Vice President. As private sector companies have been bullish on hiring people of color to lead diversity and inclusion initiatives but there's a flip side to some of these victories, are people of color in these times being set up for success? It's a phenomenon called the glass cliff, and we're going to talk about it today. Joining me now is Michelle Ryan, a Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter. She also coined the term "glass cliff" with her colleague. Michelle, thanks for joining us.
Michelle Ryan: Hi.
Tanzina: Also joining us is Loretta J. Ross, Visiting Associate Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Professor Ross, thanks for joining us again.
Loretta J. Ross: Thanks for having me on your show.
Tanzina: Michelle, you started researching the concept of the glass cliff in part because of a 2003 article in the times of London about women in leadership. Tell us why that prompted your research.
Michelle: Yes, there was an article in the times that was looking at the increasing number of women coming onto the boards of directors of footsie 100 companies so that's the UK equivalent of sort of Fortune 100 companies. What they saw with these women coming into these positions was what they termed a pattern, that as women were coming into these positions, that the companies were doing worse, they were doing worse in terms of share price and they suggested that perhaps women were wreaking havoc on these companies and of course, when we looked at this article, we thought that maybe there was something more complex going on than this initial idea that women were coming in and causing problems.
Tanzina: Loretta, when we think about some of the factors that lead to people, specifically, people of color, Black women being appointed to leadership positions, it often comes at time of crisis. Why do these tasks get placed on their shoulders?
Loretta: Well, I think there has to be a certain amount of disarray in the organization for them to take the step sometimes to hire women of color in these positions, particularly Black women. One of the problems is that they don't use the even have total consensus to take this step and so the person comes in and has to manage upwards as well as downwards because they often have to deal with a split amongst the board of directors or the trustees or the stockholders or stakeholders. They come into a very complicated situation and I could probably talk about a dozen other things that undermine their positions.
Tanzina: Michelle, this is something-- I tweeted about this yesterday and the reactions were pretty interesting. There were lots of people, I know myself included and other professionals of color, who often feel this double-edged sword in taking an opportunity that's given to you, that you've earned, I should say, let's be clear, that the opportunities that professionals of color have earned at a time of great duress for an organization and there's a feeling of, am I here because you want me here or am I here because you need to clean up a mess?
Michelle: Yes, absolutely. You can think of the glass cliff as a kind of poison chalice. Of course, it is an opportunity and it's one, as you say, that people have earned, but because there's this precarity to the glass cliff, when things are in crisis, when things are difficult, the chances of failure, the scrutiny, the difficulty of that task is huge and so that means that it's an opportunity that that is laced with potential difficulties as well.
Tanzina: Loretta, I'm curious about your thoughts specifically when it comes to something I was talking about yesterday, was the fact that professionals of color are often brought in to clean up messes that they themselves didn't even create particularly when it comes to racism and organizations, sexism in organizations, often women, whether they're white or of color are put into positions of power to remedy these things. What psychological toll and Michelle, I'd like to ask you this too, you've studied this. What sort of toll does that take on the person who's got the opportunity?
Loretta: Well, the person comes into the position, not knowing who to trust. When you have a lot of responsibilities, but not the authority to actually do anything, to really fulfill those responsibilities. The person comes in and their circle of trusted advisors is very small. Often, they have to seek outside of the company or organization to find trusted advisors because they're not given the full information that they need.
I've been in situations where women of color and other women have come into the position and the financial records were withheld for them. Well, how can you steer a ship when you don't know the finances? How can you steer a ship when the existence of secret contracts and deals are kept from you? There's a lot of landmines under the feet of these companies and organizations that are in distress, that the people taking leadership don't even know exists and often won't be told.
Tanzina: Michelle, what about you? What are your thoughts on the toll that, that takes on the person who is taking over? Because some folks, even yesterday on Twitter, were calling it the janitorial cleanup crew that's asked to come in and clean up these messes when they didn't even create them. What's the toll that, that can take on someone.
Michelle: I think there's definitely a personal toll in terms of increased levels of stress. I think in terms of job insecurity, there's evidence that shows that glass cliff positions are often much shorter. Women more likely to take on CEO positions for two-and-a-half years, whereas their male counterparts are for seven years. There's a certain job insecurity there. I think it's-
Tanzina: I want to stop you there because I think that's a really important point, Michelle. Why is it that men, and I'm assuming here, we're talking largely white men, are able to hold onto their CEO positions for an average of seven years versus women, as you just said, for an average of 2.5?
Michelle: Yes, if women and also people of color are taking on leadership positions in times of crisis. Often the cleanup is short. You come in, you clean some things up or you take on the role as steering it for a while and once things look a little bit better, all the men pipe up again, or the white men come back and say, actually, that position doesn't look so bad. I'll take that again. Either they fall out of the position because they seem to not be doing well because it was a very difficult to do well in the first place, or if they do do well, people come in and say, "Well, I'll take that back, thanks."
Tanzina: Michelle, do we have any data in terms of compensation for people who take these positions compared to their white male counterparts?
Michelle: That's a really interesting question. I don't have exact data on glass cliff positions compared to none, but we certainly know that women and people of color are likely to be paid significantly less for equivalent roles, either in terms of base salary, but also, in terms of the bonuses. When we're looking at these types of senior positions, it is often bonuses and incentives that you get for good performance that make up a large proportion of the salary and again, if you're in these crisis positions, it's very difficult to be seen to be performing well.
Tanzina: Loretta, why is this seen-- This is often frustrating because these opportunities arise often when we are in a company or an organization or a country, even I would point to us here are in crisis and that adds a level of stress, but also a pressure to having to maintain a certain attitude, if you will, certain metrics and in order to perform and God forbid, you show any humanity in your performance in a time of crisis that could be held against you.
Loretta: Absolutely, because people need confidence in a newly chosen leader and so if you take the risk of showing your uncertainties, your vulnerabilities, and the fact that people are actively maybe undermining you, then they see that as weakness and then they start actually contributing to the problem instead of helping the person find solutions to the problem. One of the things I know as a manager is that people will visit their histories and trauma with authority onto the person who's accessible to them.
Tanzina: What does that mean, Loretta? Tell us more what that means.
Loretta: I found that as a boss, as a manager, that quite often people were reacting to my orders to them, not because it was me or because they had a problem with the orders, but because they had a bit abused by authority figures in the past. It takes a while to work through that back then trauma to understand, is it that you don't want to do the work or is it that you don't like I'm talking to you, or is there something else going on? That is a slow and patient process, that often in a crisis situation, you don't have the luxury of time to figure out.
Tanzina: Michelle, a lot of this is also happening when as all we often talk about the old boys network. When people of color, women and others, are elevated to these positions, they often haven't been part of those networks to begin with, how can that further undermine their ability to succeed in these positions?
Michelle: I think in times of crisis, it's exactly when you need the support of others, isn't it? You need either resources in terms of economic resources, or you need social resources in terms of the support of other senior managers or if staff and those sorts of things. In times of crisis, often people want to run to the sides and keep out of the limelight, while things are happening, often leaving someone at the front to take all of the criticisms and the crisis on board.
Tanzina: Michelle, how much of this positions are about satisfying the optics of an organization versus actually supporting the person that they've put into the role?
Michelle: We've done research on this that absolutely shows that it may be more about signaling change than actually trying to achieve change. It looks good to put a person of color or a woman in charge, because it looks like they're doing something different, not necessarily because they want something to change.
Tanzina: Michelle, you've been doing research in this since the early 2000s, please tell me things have gotten better.
Michelle: It'd be nice to think that it has, but I don't think we've seen any demonstrable change. In fact, the research shows that the glass clip happens over and over and over again. Our research is expanding to look at different areas so we started off looking at large multinational companies, but we've also seen it in education, we've seen it in sports, we've seen it in politics. I think it's a quite a pervasive thing that doesn't really show much sign of easing up.
Tanzina: Michelle, is there an acknowledgement, at least, that women and people of color are facing these challenges? It's interesting that a lot of the people who responded on Twitter, were citing exactly this phrase, the glass cliff. There was an awareness that this happens, at least among peer groups, but has it permeated the highest levels of the C suites and K Street?
Michelle: I think that's one of the achievements that I'd like to think that we've had is that we have had this phenomenon becomes something that people talk about. Part of the metaphor of glass is that it's a subtle phenomenon. People don't set out to say, "Right, this is a crisis, we're going to put people of color and women in charge." Rather, it's much more subtle than that.
I think taking that subtlety away by talking about it by having a name that we can call it, by being able to point to a position and say, "Hey, that's a glass cliff that's likely to be risky and precarious." I think that's one step at least to seeing a bit more acknowledgement of the difficulties that people of color, and women could find themselves in.
Tanzina: Loretta, when I'm sure when you talk to women of color, Black women that you know that have been in these positions and when I talk to them, there's almost a feeling of frustration or a feeling of not really understanding what's going on, at least initially, because you have this big title, you have this big job and yet, there's something that seems to be a myth. When you talk to women who have been in these positions, how do they tell you they feel, I guess, in the aftermath?
Loretta: Well, I used to get called in when they're in the midst of it, because the first thing they say is that they've been given tremendous responsibility without the authority to make the institutional changes and the substantive changes that need to take place. If they find that a person is not doing their jobs, they will run into the barrier of the HR team saying, "Well, that person has been with us for so many years, and you can't do anything about it."
When you have those responsibilities, but not the authority to make the changes you were hired to do, that can be very frustrating. I imagine as they exit those jobs, they talk about the stress levels, and their feelings of being made to feel incompetent, even though they're not incompetent, simply because they didn't achieve the goals that they set out to achieve.
Tanzina: Loretta, your experience with this, I wonder if there's a way to think about this because it's such a double-edged sword, as I said, you want the opportunity, you want to take the opportunity, but then how do you buttress yourself against this glass cliff?
Loretta: Well, the first thing that I recommend is that an outside organizational audit takes place, not a financial one, though, that also will be required. Look at the structures that are in place, that are not working for the benefit of the organization, or the corporation. These are often long standing traditional structures that have not been interrogated, and they need to be addressed. Use this as an outside eye that can detect these things so that the person at least knows what they're dealing with because you can't fix a problem that hasn't been identified and the people who benefit from that problem are not going to run and tell you about it.
Tanzina: Michelle, what are your thoughts on that? We've got about two minutes left, I'm curious, what do you think, given your research that are some of the best practices for navigating glass cliff scenario?
Michelle: I think our research suggests very much in line with what Loretta is talking about, as well. I think it is about resources so making sure that the person that's taking on this role has the support, and is evaluated fairly. As we've talked about, I think this has personal consequences, but I think the other consequence that I think is really important is the consequences that it has for broader stereotypes. We have this idea that women and people of color are perhaps not naturally suited for leadership positions. Then if they take on these glass cliff positions that are challenging, precarious and risky, we run the risk of reinforcing the idea that women and people of color are not good leaders.
We really need to ensure that they have the resources to do a good job, but also that they're evaluated fairly that if they do struggle, or if there are struggles in that role, it's not because of their inabilities, but because of the context and the situation that makes it difficult. I think if those evaluations are put in place, then it's okay for people to work through difficult times as long as that's acknowledged.
Tanzina: Michelle Ryan is a Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter and Loretta J. Ross is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Thanks to you both.
Michelle: Thank you.
Loretta: Thank you.
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