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Leadership vs Competence: Does Your Boss Measure Up?

March 10, 2009

Steve Carell in "The Office"

Steve Carell in "The Office"

I found a recent TIME article titled “Competence: Is Your Boss Faking It?” that discusses a lot of what we talk about in communication classes, particularly when dealing with leadership qualities. A pair of tests conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that people who exercised the most influence over a group and therefore emerged as the leader were also seen as the most competent, even if that wasn’t always the case. 

                The first test divided 68 graduate students into all-male or all-female groups of four. Each group was instructed to put together an imaginary organization. At the end of the task, each member of the group, as well as independent observers, were asked to rate the other members on their level of influence on the group and level of competence. Those group members who spoke up the most were consistently rated high in qualities such as “general intelligence” while their quieter counter-parts scored higher for traits such as “uncreative.”

                To test whether or not those individuals who exhibit qualities of a leader actually have a leg to stand on , a second experiment was conducted in which groups of four had to solve problems from the GMAT, most of which involve considerable  math skills. This time, each team member revealed their SAT math scores to the researchers up front, but not to their fellow team members. Once again, those who spoke up first or the most often were rated as leaders and more competent. However, those emergent leaders who were thought to be math whizzes didn’t come up with the most correct answers, nor did they have the highest math SAT scores under their belts. “What they did do was offer the most answers-period,” the article emphasizes.  

                The test revealed another unsettling find: group members were all too eager to follow those incompetent leaders. In fact, the teams used the first answer that was shouted out an unbelievable 94% of the time without giving much consideration to other answers. Hopefully this will provide some food for thought for the future. Next time you think you may have an incompetent boss, try to look past their confidence and charisma and you may find they are sorely lacking in pretty much everything else.

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March 10, 2009

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