Ask Alto: What is the Glass Cliff?

April 30, 2024 Share this article:

Ask Alto

When Angela Merkel took over the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union in 2000, the party was in crisis. Merkel took the reins in the middle of a financing scandal and navigated her way to becoming German Chancellor in 2005, a position she held with distinction until 2021.

Her appointment as head of the CDU party is an example of the glass cliff phenomenon, according to researcher Susanne Brückmuller. Merkel took office at a time of risk – when it was entirely possible she could fail.

The term “glass cliff” was coined in 2005 by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter. Responding to a newspaper article which claimed that women in leadership had negatively affected company performance, they examined the performance of FTSE 100 companies before and after the appointment of a male or female board member. They found that “companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have experienced consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who appointed men” – in other words, the companies were already performing badly.

Their term, glass cliff, describes “an additional, largely invisible, hurdle that women need to overcome in the workplace”; having broken through the glass ceiling (a systemic invisible barrier that prevents women from advancing in their careers), people may find themselves unsupported on the edge of a cliff.

Both the glass cliff and the glass ceiling can refer to the barriers and obstacles that people from all marginalised groups face.

What we’ve learned about the glass cliff since 2005

The phenomenon has been widely researched, with mixed results:

• Alison Cook, a professor of management at Utah State University, and colleague Christy Glass found that, in United States college men’s basketball, coaches belonging to racial minorities were more likely than white coaches to be promoted to losing teams.

• The researchers also analysed promotion patterns at Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year timespan and saw that – compared to white men – white women and both men and women of colour were more likely to be appointed as CEO in struggling firms.

• But a 2020 meta-analysis by Thekla Morgenroth at Purdue University in Indiana and colleagues examined 74 existing studies and found that the evidence for the phenomenon was mixed. In experimental studies, women were more likely to be selected over men as leaders in times of crisis, and this effect was more pronounced in countries that have more gender inequality. But the part of the analysis looking at real-world data didn’t find a glass cliff in management per se, even if it did find one in politics and the education and non-profit sectors.

Reasons for the glass cliff

Just like the research, the explanations as to why a company might appoint someone to a position of risk are complex. Theories include:

• Marginalised people are being deliberately set up to fail.

• The existing leadership thinks a non-stereotypical leader will bring skills or attributes that will enable the company to weather its crisis.

• But this might be because stereotypes are in play: for example, a woman might be seen to be “nurturing,” “warm” or “empathetic” and therefore more likely to help people through a crisis.

• Another theory is that appointing a person from a marginalised group may be a signal to the outside world that the company is serious about change.

• Even if appointing “a new broom” is a genuine attempt to bring change and transformation, it is likely to backfire without understanding that person’s need for support.

Why would someone accept a risky offer?

Some glass cliff appointees may take the challenge because they perceive long-term gain. Cook interviewed 33 women and people of colour in senior leadership roles across a range of industries in the US and found that nearly all of them recounted multiple make-or-break assignments during their careers. They said they had actively chosen these assignments to prove themselves and build a career: they were paying a “risk tax” to achieve upward mobility.

It’s also possible that people from marginalised communities have too little information about the positions they are offered. If they are not members of the “old boys’ network”, they are not privy to that particular rumour mill and may only find out the magnitude of the challenge once they are in the hot seat.

What should people contemplating a glass cliff appointment take into account?

As the MIT Sloan Management Review points out, one possible outcome of a leader having taken on a glass cliff appointment is that they will fail, and this will be blamed on their perceived shortcomings rather than the situation. Often, the “saviour effect” comes into play, where the minority leader is then replaced by a more demographically typical leader who “saves the day.”

To avoid this happening, and to flourish as Angela Merkel did, take these steps:

1. Know what you are taking on: Is the organisation in a crisis (what are the key organisational goals that are under threat and necessitating a quick response)? How are you equipped to handle these challenges? Also, are people like you underrepresented in leadership positions? Are you demographically unlike your predecessor? Researching these questions will give you a clearer idea of the magnitude of the problem.

2. What happened with previous leaders? Did they hit their performance targets, within budget and on schedule? If not, it’s possible that no one in the organisation has the capacity or sufficient information to achieve target – a clear indicator that this is a possible glass cliff.

3. Ask questions before you accept the assignment: Ask for the expected performance targets, deadlines, and budget. Ask about all the possible stakeholders in the problem – who are the people involved, what are their roles, and what is their performance history? Ask to talk to these key people to get their perspectives.

4. Get help: Talk to people in your network who might be able to shed light on the company’s problems. A trusted executive search advisor familiar with your industry would be a good person to have on your side as they can give you industry insights, market mapping and possible candidate mapping should you need to further build out your leadership team.

5. Analyse what you have learned and create a plan: If you discover that the organisation’s culture is unintentionally hampering the achievement of its goals, identify the existing practices and processes that are obstructing success. Think about what you will need from the organisation to bring about change and ask if you will get that support. Create a detailed plan, including your short-, medium- and long-term goals; the mentors, sponsors, and allies you will call upon for support and guidance; and your plans for knowledge and skill building, if needed. Understand that you might not get everything you want: be clear about your must-haves and nice-to-haves. Be ready to negotiate.

6. Sanity test your plan: Seek feedback from people you trust. Helpful questions to ask during their review include “What am I not asking? What am I not negotiating for that I need to? Is my plan realistic?”

7. Just say no: If your due diligence process shows that you are not the right fit for the opportunity or cannot devise a realistic plan for the situation, or the organisation does not agree to the plan you have outlined, it may be wiser to decline the position.

How leadership can avoid creating glass cliffs

Any organisation that is serious about its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives should take steps to avoid putting people from marginalised groups in positions of risk without the necessary support.

Some steps to take:

1. Audit your promotion processes: If women or people of colour are being promoted into challenging roles more often than men, that’s a red flag.

2. Make it a board imperative: Raise awareness of the issue at a board level. Ensure the board is part of the strategic decision-making process and actively supports any culture change initiatives. Meaningful change then becomes a shared accountability and is more likely to be sustainable if the board and executive team support the process.

3. Be proactive: Make sure that people from marginalised groups are paid and rewarded equitably with more privileged counterparts. This can help to stop people from taking unnecessary risks to reap rewards. And actively work towards promoting diverse candidates during stable periods.

4. Get serious about mentoring and training: Mentor, sponsor and advocate for women (especially women of colour) who are more marginalised so that they are proactively equipped to lead when opportunities arise.

5. Objective performance evaluations: Use objective measures of performance to judge female leaders, rather than perceptions, especially when an organisation is in crisis.

6. Offer support to leaders: Whether it’s during a time of crisis or not, leadership appointees from marginalised groups benefit from sustained and genuine support.

7. Leverage your stakeholders: Actively communicate your plans and steps for improvement to your external stakeholders (shareholders, investors, government groups and media) and control the narrative to avoid ongoing rumour and market speculation. Transparent communications, where appropriate, help create realistic and positive sentiment about the business and can positively impact future employee attraction and retention.

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