Leadership can be based on quantity not quality

Photo by Flickr user llawliet. Click for sourceTime magazine reports on an intriguing new study finding that groups select natural leaders on the basis of how much each person contributes to group discussions, even when their contributions have no relation to their actual competence.

Psychologists Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff, asked several groups to complete tasks for a $400 dollar prize.

They found that those who spoke more were rated as more competent and influential. Wondering whether this genuinely reflected their actual competence, they decided to test this out with a similar task where the group had to solve math problems.

But this time, they had the participants’ mathematics exam results and could see exactly how many problems each person had solved.

When the work was finished, the people who spoke up more were again likelier to be described by peers as leaders and likelier to be rated as math whizzes. What’s more, any speaking up at all seemed to do. Participants earned recognition for being the first to call out an answer, but also for being the second or third ‚Äî even if all they did was agree with what someone else had said. Merely providing some scrap of information relevant to solving the problem counted too, as long as they did so often enough and confidently enough.

When Anderson and Kilduff checked the participants’ work, however, a lot of pretenders were exposed. Repeatedly, the ones who emerged as leaders and were rated the highest in competence were not the ones who offered the greatest number of correct answers. Nor were they the ones whose SAT scores suggested they’d even be able to. What they did do was offer the most answers ‚Äî period.

The researchers conclude that one way dominant people attain influence is simple through acting in ways that make them appear competent, even when this isn’t the case.

Link to Time article ‘Competence: Is Your Boss Faking It?’.
Link to PubMed entry for study.

4 Comments

  1. Posted February 12, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I hereby nominate this as The Most Depressing Study Result of 2009 and yes, I realize it is only February. But I also recognize these findings in far too many personal experiences.

  2. ronwagn
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Useful study, but this has been common knowledge all along. When the mob chose to spare Barrabas over Jesus is an old example. Congress is another. That emotional intelligence succeeds over real intelligence is another well observed fact. How about making bad picks for mates?

  3. thwood3
    Posted February 13, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Frank Luntz says, keep repeating your talking points. Just keep repeating them! Eventually the sheep follow. Off the cliff.

  4. Posted February 22, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I personally tend to speak up when I know something about the topic at hand. And I generally keep quiet if I have nothing valuable to add.
    I guess that could mean two things. Either there is SOME correlation between how much a person speaks and how much they know – which could explain the bias. Or, it could mean that I’m stupid to be honest and I should talk even if I know nothing whatsoever about the topic :p


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