“Are women better leaders than men?” That’s the provocative question Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger raised last month in a blog post on Harvard Business Review’s Web site, where they first published the results of their study based on the performance evaluations of more than 7,000 leaders.

In it, they analyzed thousands of their clients’ “360 evaluations,” which pull together the opinions of a leader’s performance by their bosses, their peers and their underlings. Their study found that women outscored men on 12 of the 16 attributes Folkman and Zenger have found to be most associated with great leaders. On average, the study found, women were more likely to outscore men on everything from “displaying high integrity” to “driving for results.” In fact, the only competency on which men had a more positive score was “developing strategic expertise.” That led Folkman and Zenger, who run an eponymously named leadership development firm, to title their study even more provocatively: “Women do it Better than Men.”

But do they really? The duo’s write-up for Harvard Business Review prompted hundreds of responses from readers, many of whom debated the results of the study, and has been one of the most-read articles on the site over the last 30 days. On Leadership’s Jena McGregor spoke with Folkman and Zenger to learn more about their research and the response to it. An edited excerpt of our conversation follows.

How did this study come about?

Jack Zenger: We were obviously interested in the question of why, as you move up organizations, there are successively smaller percentages of women in those ranks. Is there any sound reason for that? Why is management making these decisions? There are functional areas that have been traditional male bastions — sales, IT, engineering — is there any rational reason for that [in terms of employee performance]?

How did your study confirm or deny what we tend to think about women in leadership?

Joseph Folkman: Intuitively, when most people first hear about [our study] they say okay, yes, so women will be more nurturing, or do better on other leadership qualities typically associated with women. What was fascinating was it’s true — they were more nurturing, on average — and yet we also found that the two competencies in which women were most ahead of men were “taking initiative” and “practicing self-development.” They did particularly well on competencies like “driving for results.” So this idea we have that women are just nicer [is misguided]. These women are hard driving.

The reality, I think, is that when you look at the top two competencies, you start to draw this conclusion that women are more motivated. They’re not assuming that things are going to be handed to them. When people give them feedback, they use it. Sometimes men just assume they will have things handed to them on a silver platter. I find in my own interviews with women that they have almost a paranoia:  “I earn everything I get. If I don’t perform, I’m out of here. If I drop the ball, it’s noticed.” I don’t know whether it’s true or not. But I think that attitude might stimulate them to try harder. It’s the desire part of this that’s really interesting.

What finding interested you most?

JF: It’s always fun to find things that are counter-intuitive. These stereotypes that we have about women leaders are shattered by the data. You would have thought the areas where women would have excelled would be areas like customer service. But it was actually one of the few places where men excelled [in our study]. The second big “aha” from the study is that, although there is a lot of concern on the part of CEOs about finding an adequate supply of talented people to carry the organization into the future, they’re actually sitting on this huge resource that is not being very well utilized.

JZ: It’s important to keep in mind that the assessments we studied are from our clients. They tend to be successful, well-managed, progressive companies. So this trend may not be true everywhere. But we think the reason this is taking place is we have women who have great desire, great motivation and great passion and we see them getting good assignments, getting mentored and getting supported.

The study generated a huge response, with a number of readers of your original post dismissing your findings. What did you make of all the people who criticized the study design or felt the findings just showed that women’s performance was more conspicuous, because there are fewer in upper-level positions?

JZ: They have their own point of view. This is a selective group of terrific women. But does that suggest then that the men who are in comparable positions aren’t capable people? I find that to be a weak argument. For me the big implication is that when given opportunity, when given proper coaching and mentoring and, most importantly, when given proper stretch assignments, women do well. We’re not trying to inflame the argument or pit one against each other.

JF: Our wives find this really humorous. We’re now experts on women. They find this really funny. One of the things I think happens is when people read the data, there’s a tremendous reaction to their own experience. You read the comments: one says I worked for a woman and she was terrible, one says I worked for a woman and it was great, the third comment is this shouldn’t make a difference, why are we even talking about it.

One of the things you have to keep in mind with the data is we’re looking at averages. We just said women tended to be better on 12 competencies. As we looked at the data, we found that women were among the worst leaders that we have ever found, and among some of the best leaders. It isn’t a general conclusion that women are always better. Hopefully we can get beyond that issue. This isn’t a gender issue. The biggest insight to me is that if you really want to be a great leader, be a little paranoid. Ask for feedback. We are very optimistic in the ability for people to develop these skills.

Do you think there’s any connection between readers’ willingness to criticize such research and the proportionately small numbers of women in top management?

JZ: When you read through all the responses, we know many people have extreme points of view. I think there’s a large group of people who say this can’t be true, and they don’t want to believe that this is reality. They very well may be some of the people who tend not to have very many women in senior management positions in their firm. Tom Peters’ old colleague Bob Waterman used to say “all facts are friendly.” Let’s pay attention to them and see what we can learn.

What do you think would happen if you broke out the results and just looked at what the participants’ bosses thought of them? Would women still score better? Or would the fact that you’d assumedly be surveying more men — who make up more of the senior leadership ranks — change the results?

JF: What we know about managers is they tend to respond about the same as the direct reports do [in 360 evaluations]. Peers tend to be slightly more negative. It’d be interesting to see the results.

JZ: What we do know is that the single most accurate predictor of a 360 is what the manager thinks, so my hunch would be that there will be a very strong consistency and correlation between the managers and what we’re seeing in the totals.

Editor’s note: Indeed, that turned out to be the case. Folkman ran the numbers for On Leadership after our interview, and found that senior managers rated the women in the study even more positively on their overall leadership effectiveness than did her peers or her direct reports. When looking at just the managers’ responses, women outscored men in a statistically significant way on 14 of the 16 competencies.

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On Leadership: @post_lead | Editor: @lily_cunningham