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Dancing on the Razor’s Edge: How Top-Level Women Leaders Manage the Paradoxical Tensions between Agency and Communion

Abstract

Research documents a heightened need for women leaders to be perceived as both agentic and communal and to deal with the incongruity between communal gender-role expectations and agentic leader-role expectations. However, paradoxical tensions exist between agency and communion because they are associated with distinct, and at times conflictual, cognition, behavior, and motivation. How women leaders manage these tensions remains under-explored. To address this gap in the literature, we conducted an inductive study based on interviews with 64 U.S. women executives from various industries. Drawing from a paradox lens, we first identified four pairs of apparently contradictory agentic and communal tendencies that are interwoven in women leaders’ narratives: demanding and caring, authoritative and participative, self-advocating and other-serving, and distant and approachable. We also identified five mechanisms through which women leaders bring together agency and communion: situational accentuating, sequencing, overlapping, complementing, and reframing. Our findings highlight the underlying mechanisms and constructive routes through which women leaders juxtapose agency and communion to cope with role incongruity. They also offer guidance to women leaders and leadership-development practitioners in expanding mental models and behavioral repertoires to deal with the challenges stemming from tensions between agency and communion.

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Correspondence to Wei Zheng.

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We obtained IRB approval for our project, protocol number # H2014 - T096, from the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. We faithfully followed the IRB protocol in data collection, analyses, and protection. Informed consent was obtained before each interview.

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There is no potential conflict of interest as related to our research project.

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Zheng, W., Surgevil, O. & Kark, R. Dancing on the Razor’s Edge: How Top-Level Women Leaders Manage the Paradoxical Tensions between Agency and Communion. Sex Roles 79, 633–650 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0908-6

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Keywords

  • Agency
  • Communion
  • Leadership
  • Gender roles
  • Paradox
  • Double-bind