Bosses may be an overbearing breed, but more often than not, you've got to admire their business chops. Wouldn't you love to have that same sense of competence and confidence, that ability to assess tough problems and reach smart solutions on the fly? Guess what? So would they. If you have ever suspected that your boss isn't actually good enough at what he or she does to deserve the job in the first place, a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that you might be right.
Social psychologists know that one way to be viewed as a leader in any group is simply to act like one. Speak up, speak well and offer lots of ideas, and before long, people will begin doing what you say. This works well when leaders know what they're talking about, but what if they don't? If someone acts like a boss but thinks like a boob, is that still enough to stay on top? (See the best business deals of 2008.)
To determine just how easily an all-hat-no-cattle leader can take control of employees, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, devised a pair of tests. Cameron Anderson, an associate professor of organizational behavior and industrial relations, along with doctoral candidate Gavin Kilduff, recruited a group of 68 graduate students and divided them into four-person teams. To eliminate the wild card of gender, the teams were either all-male or all-female. Each group was given the task of organizing an imaginary nonprofit environmental organization; the group that did best as determined by the researchers would win a $400 prize. While the prize was real, the purported goal wasn't. What Anderson and Kilduff really wanted to see was how the alpha group members would emerge. (Read "How to Know When the Economy Is Turning Up.")
After the teams performed their work for a fixed amount of time, the members of each group rated one another on both their level of influence on the group and, more important, their level of competence. The work sessions were videotaped, and a group of independent observers performed the same evaluations, as did Anderson and Kilduff. All three sets of judges reached the same conclusions. Consistently, the group members who spoke up the most were rated the highest for such qualities as "general intelligence" and "dependable and self-disciplined." The ones who didn't speak as much tended to score higher for less desirable traits, including "conventional and uncreative."
"More-dominant individuals achieved influence in their groups in part because they were seen as more competent by fellow group members," Anderson and Kilduff write. (See pictures of Steve Jobs on the job.)
But so what? Maybe they were more competent. Isn't it possible that people who talk more do so because they simply have more to contribute? To test that, Anderson and Kilduff ran a second study with a new team of volunteers in which the skill being tested was a lot more quantifiable than forming a nonprofit green group. This time it was math. (See entrepreneurs breaking ground in global business.)
Once again, the volunteers were divided into fours in competition for a $400 prize, but now their assigned task was to work as teams to solve computational problems from previous versions of the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT). Before the work began, the participants informed the researchers but not their team members of their real-world scores on the math portion of the SAT. 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 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. (See TIME's photo-essay "All Cubed In.")
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 period.
"Dominant individuals behaved in ways that made them appear competent," the researchers write, "above and beyond their actual competence." Troublingly, group members seemed only too willing to follow these underqualified bosses. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the teams used the first answer anyone shouted out often giving only perfunctory consideration to others that were offered.
None of this comes as much of a shock at least if you've been watching the news. You don't have to be a former homeowner burned by the housing fiasco or a blue-state voter screaming "I told you so" to agree that the way we pick our leaders is often based on something other than merit. That's not entirely bad, since no matter how competent bosses are, they still have to have the charisma and confidence to persuade people to follow them. Whether they're leading from the Oval Office or the corner office, it's up to the rest of us to watch them closely and make sure they know what they're doing and where they're going.