Web chat: Rebecca Newton

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Welcome to the Financial Times live web chat with Rebecca Newton, who features in our Ten Questions Q&A.

Rebecca Newton, a business psychologist and expert in leadership education at London School of Economics and Political Science and Duke Corporate Education, will answer your questions on Thursday 15th December 2011, between 13.00-14.00 GMT.

Post your questions now to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day on this page.


How would you prioritise ethics of obedience (rules), care (empathy) and reason (conscience) in decision making by women? Is this different with men? If so, what are the implications for leadership behaviours and culture in senior teams?

Peter Neville Lewis, UK

Rebecca: Great question, although without a simple answer! There are many things that influence why and how people make decisions. I would consider that for women, as with for men, there are two important considerations which impact how those factors you mentioned guide decision making. The first is personality - we have inherent preferences which guide our behaviour, including decision making. For example, the extent to which someone is inclined to follow rules in their decision making process would be influenced by their personality preferences.

Secondly, the extent to which any factors influence our decision making needs to be considered through the lens of ‘contingency theory’ - that is, what factors influence someone’s decision making will be contingent upon the situation. A part of this is what you highlighted in your question - the culture and leadership behaviours demonstrated in senior teams. How we make decisions will impact senior team culture but on the flip side, the culture of an organisation or team will impact the way people actually make decisions.

For example, in a senior leadership team if there was a lack of trust and people felt threatened, emotions would undoubtedly influence decision making. So while I don’t think it’s possible to prioritise influencing factors on decision making overall, it’s important to look at the the culture, interpersonal dynamics and environment to see what factors may be positively and negatively impacting the way people make decisions.

As far as the differences between men and women are concerned, there are some differences although there are arguably just as many differences between men and between women! However, we do know that when under pressure of perceived threat, men have the ‘fight or flight’ response, women tend to have what is known as the ‘tend and befriend’ response. This means that when women perceive threat they will care for others and look to trusted others. As with differences in all teams, differences tend to lead to better outcomes where they are well managed (when differences are not well managed or respected this can lead to substantial problems). Hence where difference of ideas and decision making is encouraged and valued, having women play a significant role in senior leadership teams is vital and will lead to stronger results.

As far as differences in ethical attitudes and decision making go, there was an interesting study in the Journal of Business Ethics 1997 (Vol 16, no.11) which you may like to have a look at. This research showed significant ethical differences between the sexes in situations involving relational issues but not in non-relational situations. So this would suggest that gender differences will impact the culture of decision making in the Board room and senior teams on some (relational) but not all issues. The researchers also found that gender based ethical differences changed with age and years of experience, therefore how the differences in gender play out at a senior level will be different to how we observe differences in ethical attitudes and decision making by those who are new to professional life.

Hi Ms Newton, are there any face to face or Skype free consultancies for women in business? I have still not found the right career. I really feel the potential in me to grow in business administration or similar but I studied literature. I feel I have a lot of potential but I need to find the right path, do you have any advice for me?

Victoria Trajkova

Rebecca: Hi Victoria, thanks for your email. There actually is a lot of free advice you can get. A good place to start is with the free government services. Have a look at Directgov - this is designed to help people move forward in life and with their work. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you’ve studied literature and now want to take a different career path. Very often people study one thing but then pursue a career in a totally different field and equally employers are often looking for transferrable skills rather than specific degree knowledge. After completing my second degree in psychology, I got offered a job in investment banking and had never studied finance!

Having said that, it’s worth having a look into what courses you might like to do. Ask to have appointments with the lecturers and see what type of careers people have after completing the degrees. Studying something new can be a great springboard into a new career. I remember in my first professional job meeting someone who was over 45 and I thought she was so terrific. I couldn’t imagine ever getting to that stage of my career. I asked her how long she’d been doing this - thinking she’d say ‘20 years’. She looked at me and said ‘About five years, I used to be a hairdresser!’ Then she said ‘Never let anyone tell you it’s too late to start a new career - I’m living proof it’s not true.’

Think about where you’d like to be in ten years time, how you’d like your life to look, and what you’d like to be doing for work on a day to day basis. Then find some people who do what you do, ask them how they think you should go about getting into it and work backwards to find out what your first step should be.

I wish you all the best with your future!

Good afternoon,

Given the weak job market do you think it is worth me holding out for the job of my dreams, or should I settle for second best for now in the hope that I will be able to make the switch in a few years’ time?

Rebecca: Great question. I would always say to go after the job of your dreams (we spend so much time at work it’s definitely worth pursuing something you absolutely love!) At the same time, it’s important to balance that with wisdom. I wouldn’t just sit around waiting for the right job to come by, I’d take the best opportunity you have right now, do it to the absolute best of your ability, put loads of energy into it and keep pursuing your dream job at the same time. It’s funny though - sometimes what you’re doing when you think you’ve settled can actually turn into your dream job!

When I started out in my career I had my dream job in mind, but instead got something totally different and got a job working for one business psychologist with a small practice. I thought it was just a ‘do it to keep me going / get my foot in the door job’ but it turned out to be single-handedly the most positive influence on my career to date. I had loads of opportunities, a great mentor and the learning curve was unbelievably steep. It certainly didn’t seem like the dream job but it turned out to be. Take the best job you can now, do it as well as you can and keep pursuing doors that might lead into the job of your dreams.

How does your time at Harvard University compare to your time at the LSE?

Rebecca: Both were incredible experiences. I did my Masters and my PhD at the LSE, so was very familiar with that style of teaching and academia when I went to Harvard. I found that at the LSE I learned to think in a new way. Critical thinking is really encouraged and I found my perspective on the world changed while I studied there.

At Harvard I found the American customer service culture infiltrated the university. Harvard professors were incredibly generous with their time and advice. The resources at Harvard were amazing and of course the grounds and buildings are beautiful. That’s one big difference to the LSE - where we’re in the centre of London there’s obviously not quite as much space but you have different benefits (namely, being in the centre of London!)

I’ve been extremely impressed by the quality of faculty, research and teaching at both universities and as both have students from all over the world, I found it a wonderful experience to study alongside people from all different walks of life!

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