Rapport: The Hidden Advantage That Women Managers Bring to Teams

It’s a manager’s nightmare: A customer pulls into a drive-thru after a long day at work with children in tow, everyone looking frazzled and famished. After waiting patiently in line, the customer grabs her bag of burgers through the window and happily zips away—until her kids rip open their bounty and wail from the back seat: “Where are the fries?” Disappointment ensues.

The reason for the oversight—and the frustrating customer experience—may have nothing to do with the fast-food worker’s skill level. In fact, new research shows that poor performance on the job often boils down to inadequate communication and rapport between managers and employees. In this case, the manager may not have scheduled the fast-food stations properly, forcing an overtaxed employee to juggle both packaging meals and taking orders. With an improperly managed staff stretched too thin on a busy night, morale dwindles, mistakes happen, and a customer’s fries go missing.

“You could have a great strategy on paper, but why isn’t it working? Lack of rapport can kill performance,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Jorge Tamayo.

“The notion of how critical rapport is for performance is extremely novel.”

When it comes to building good rapport, the gender makeup of managers and their teams matters, Tamayo’s research shows. Overall, cisgender men manage other men well, and cisgender women manage other women well. When the gender of managers and workers is mixed, however, women outshine men. That is, men are worse at managing women, whereas women are adept at managing both women and men, research shows.

That’s because ultimately, women are more effective at building rapport among mixed-gender teams than men, and doing so often leads to higher productivity and stronger sales, according to Tamayo’s recent working paper, Rapport in Organizations: Evidence from Fast Food. Tamayo cowrote the paper with Achyuta Adhvaryu of the University of California, San Diego, as well as Parker Howell and Anant Nyshadham of the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, teams with top-heavy male management and mostly female workers tend to have less rapport—which can hamper productivity.

Tamayo notes that prior research has emphasized the importance of soft skills, such as communication, for both workers and managers, yet this paper goes a step further in illustrating how the right manager relationship with staff can help improve employee performance and increase retention, an important finding for any business.

“This study shows that investing in both managers and workers is simultaneously important,” Tamayo says. “The notion of how critical rapport is for performance is extremely novel. Some managerial practices necessitate a good rapport with workers, and some managerial styles and approaches only work if you have that good rapport. [Lack of rapport could] lead to increased turnover and low effort or so-called quiet quitting.”

Why managers and workers of the same gender collaborate well

The research team studied the expansion of a leading food delivery platform and the resulting rise in fast-food sales to observe how managers adjusted worker staffing to handle spikes in demand. The team analyzed personnel and productivity data from a Colombian fast-food chain, examining 88 million transactions among 76 restaurants to investigate whether the gender of managers and workers impacted a team’s ability to handle busy periods. The team also studied training and scheduling data and interviewed managers to gain insights about their management style.

“To focus on rapport, we need to understand the production function and process well,” Tamayo says. “Here, we know you need (various) stations covered—cashier, grill, fryer, assembly, drinks, dessert—and then we have a sense of how a demand shock like a delivery platform will amplify existing demand fluctuations.”

“It’s fascinating and points to differences in the instincts and baseline soft skills of men and women when they approach managerial roles and responsibilities.”

The research team chose Latin America because men and women hold both frontline and managerial positions in substantial proportions.

“That’s not that common (worldwide), but service industries like food and retail in this part of the world are great examples, and they occupy very large proportions of the labor force. The findings here apply to a lot of workers,” Tamayo says.

Rather than hire additional employees to handle the larger volume of orders, managers reallocated staff to different work shifts. The researchers found that fast-food restaurants with managers and workers of predominantly the same gender had:

  • Better communication and improved worker rapport.
  • More training and skilled workers, who could easily step into different stations and shifts, when needed.
  • Roughly three times the sales gains, compared to stores where men predominantly supervised female workers.

In addition, stores with female-heavy management also had better rapport, more highly trained and flexible staff, and improved sales, compared to stores with male-heavy management of women, although those stores didn’t perform quite as well as stores with managers and workers of the same gender.

“It’s fascinating and points to differences in the instincts and baseline soft skills of men and women when they approach managerial roles and responsibilities,” Tamayo says. “Of course, the next question is: Can we train one type of manager to act like the other when it would be performance-enhancing to do so?”

Why rapport makes a difference

Scheduling workers is a logistical puzzle, but it’s also an emotional one, Tamayo says. In the researchers’ sample, a worker was typically trained and certified to handle only four or five of 37 possible stations. When scheduling workers, a manager had to consider which stations each staffer was qualified to handle, how many workers were needed on each station given the predicted demand for different products, and the workers’ own idiosyncratic availability and preferences. The researchers predicted that managers with better relationships with workers would invest more time and effort in training and that their workers would be more willing to receive training in additional responsibilities.

“Workers in these stores have nearly double the station certifications as those in stores with men managing women.”

When managers and their employees shared the same gender identity, employees were on average trained on 50 to 80 percent more stations, compared with managers of stores in which mostly male managers supervised female workers. Workers matching the gender of managers also were more willing to accept shift reassignments and take on additional training certifications as needed, making scheduling simpler.

“Workers are more willing to do this significant additional training, which is many hours or days long. The pass rate for certifications is less than 70 percent, so sometimes these workers are repeating trainings to achieve station certifications. But workers in these stores have nearly double the station certifications as those in stores with men managing women,” Tamayo explains.

To determine rapport, the team asked managers about the different ways they interacted with workers, including whether they treated employees as equals and looked out for their welfare and whether they regularly involved team members in goal-setting. The results showed that managers who created better rapport:

Focus on creating optimal schedules. Managers who matched the gender of workers were 59 percent more likely to list scheduling as the most important part of their responsibilities for store performance. Plus, female managers were 13 percent more likely to spend more time on scheduling than any other task and assign workers preferred shifts to prevent high turnover. “It’s consistent with female managers being generally more aware of and responsive to workers’ scheduling constraints,” Tamayo says.

Look out more for their workers’ interests. Managers of workers with the same gender were 21 percent less likely to keep to themselves; 33 percent less likely to act without consulting workers; and 52 percent more likely to look out for the welfare of their employees, compared to stores with male-heavy management. Women managers also looked out for their employees more than men who managed women.

Discuss and reach goals more often. Compared to stores with male-heavy management, when managers and workers shared the same gender, managers were:

  • 80 percent more likely to discuss key performance indicators with their workers very frequently.
  • 42 percent more likely to set short-term goals.
  • 29 percent more likely to include their workers in the goal-setting process.
  • 74 percent more likely to achieve these goals.

When women managed stores, stores also performed better on goals than when men managed women.

Providing more leadership opportunities for women

The research shows a manager’s ability to communicate and build strong rapport with their workers has a dramatic impact on worker productivity—and if women perform better no matter who they’re supervising, more women should be given an opportunity to lead, Tamayo says.

“Many industries are pretty far from gender parity. The management, systems, and culture has been designed from a male perspective,” Tamayo says. “Our findings underscore that, even if we bring women in on the front lines, we may not be setting them up for success if we don’t also improve female representation at the management level in parallel. Not only should we rebalance gender parity at managerial levels, but right now we’re skewed the wrong way in almost every industry and every part of the world.”

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Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at hbswk@hbs.edu.

Image: Image created by HBSWK with assets from AdobeStock/Vera Kuttelvaserova

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