Survival of the loudest

Mar 20 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The meek shall not inherit the earth, or at least will not rise to the top of the management tree, a new study has suggested. Rather it is those who make the most noise, irrespective of whether they are the most competent, who get noticed.

According to research by University of California at Berkeley academics Cameron Anderson, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the school, and Gavin Kilduff, a doctoral student, it is those who display traits of "high dominance", in other words being assertive, forceful and self-assured, whatever their actual abilities.

In fact the study, which has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has argued that this can even apply to people who actually lack competence.

What this means for managers is that, in a climate where talent is squandered at your peril, there is a clear need to make an extra effort to look beyond the bluster, bluff and self-promotion of the average ambitious workplace environment and identify talent that may be quietly hiding away.

The research's aim was to determine how easily someone could take over leadership of a small group, independent of whether or not they were qualified to do so.

To gauge this, two tests were carried out. In the first, 68 undergraduates were broken into groups of four and told to organise an imaginary not-for-profit group.

Their sessions were videotaped, with members later watching the tapes and rating each other on both their level of influence and their level of competence. At the same time, a panel of independent judges also viewed and rated the team members' performance.

The second test involved 100 different undergraduate students split into four-person teams and was designed to ascertain whether those who talked the most did so because they had the most to offer.

The teams were asked to compete for a $400 prize by solving maths problems taken from the Graduate Management Admission Test, which candidates applying for MBA will sit.

Before the test began, the team members were also asked to tell their real-world SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) maths scores to the researchers, but not to their team co-members.

The first test found that both the judges and team members deemed the most outspoken team members as possessing higher levels of general intelligence, among other traits.

A second test reported the same results, namely that those people who spoke up most often were rated as the best leaders as well as the most able at maths, even if this was not reflected in their SAT scores.

"What surprised us the most was the strength of the effects we were observing," said Anderson to the HR website Human Resource Executive Online.

"Dominant people were so confident in their competence, even though they were no more competent than anyone else," he added.

"To put it more concretely, dominant personalities (those in the top quartile on dominance scores) gave answers 63 per cent of the time, whereas less-dominant personalities (those in the bottom quartile on dominance scores) gave answers only 36 per cent of the time Ė even though, again, these two groups of people were equally competent," he concluded.

But the findings clearly pose challenges for organisations trying to find the best talent to fill management positions, even in these recessionary times.

Relying on first impressions or apparent confidence could be a foolhardy approach, and more objective competence and competency tests may well be a better way forward.

"Yes, confidence and ability are often correlated, as when people who are truly talented exhibit more confidence in their opinions and ideas," said Anderson.

"But, often confidence and ability are only mildly related, or even unrelated," he added.

Anderson, for one, is well known for his analyses of the relationship between character and access to power within organisations.

Back in 2006 he published research, now looking decidedly prescient in light of the activities of our big banks, suggesting that powerful people tend to view life through rose-coloured spectacles, and it is this optimistic outlook that drives them to engage in risky behaviour.

While risky behaviour could often be beneficial, helping individuals maintain or even increase their power, it could also lead to executives taking risks that ultimately hurt or even destroyed them, he argued.

And the year earlier, in 2005, a poll by business development consultants Optima argued that, while being ambitious, assertive and authoritative could, as a chief executive, win you plaudits from your shareholders, such traits were also potentially the most likely to hold a business back.

Employees tended to prefer, and therefore respond more to, leaders who were willing to nurture, empower and support them, and who were also willing to share knowledge and delegate tasks, it added.