Tag Archives: leadership


Infants expect leaders to right wrongs, and are surprised when they don’t

Infants look to leaders to keep the peace, a new study finds.


Image via Pixabay.

Humans are very social creatures. Living in a group, however, invariably gives rise to some tension, conflict, and misdemeanor — and someone has to fix it. We have an innate understanding (and expectation) that this ‘someone’ is the leader of the group or some other kind of authority figure. New research shows that this understanding is baked into our hardware and that infants as young as 17 months of age expect leaders — but not others — to intervene when one member of their group transgresses against another.

I’m telling!

“We know that adults expect the leaders of social groups to intervene to stop within-group transgressions,” said Maayan Stavans, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Infant Cognition Lab and the paper’s lead author. “We wanted to know how early those expectations appear in human development, so we examined the question in very young children.”

The research was carried out in the lab of Renée Baillargeon, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who led the research. The results add to a growing body of evidence showing that children have a well-developed understanding of social and power dynamics by their second year of life.

The team used a well-established method to gain insight into the reasoning of the children, who were too young to adequately express themselves verbally: infants tend to stare longer at events that develop in a way they didn’t expect, the team explains.

“By tracking how long children stare at different events, we gain insight into what they think,” Stavans said.

For the first two runs of the experiment, the researchers worked with 120 infants who sat comfortably in their parents’ laps and were shown a puppet play. These short skits involved bear puppets in two different scenarios: one involving a protagonist bear that two other bears treated as a leader, and the other a protagonist bear that appeared to have no authority over the other two bears. In both scenarios, the protagonist gave the other two bears toys for them to share, but one puppet quickly grabbed both for itself. Next, the protagonist would either rectify this (by redistributing the toys) or ignored the transgression (by approaching each bear without redistributing a toy).

“The scenarios differed in the status of the protagonist — was she a leader or not? — and in the protagonist’s response to the transgression — did she rectify the situation or ignore it?” Baillargeon said.

She explains that infants “stared longer” when the leader-protagonist ignored the wrongdoing rather than rectify it. This suggests they were expecting the leader to step up and intervene to right the injustice, and were surprised when it didn’t. The infants also stared for longer at the bear who took the toys than the victim bear when the leader ignored the event, likely to see what caused the leader’s reluctance to intervene.

On the other hand, the infants didn’t appear to show any surprise when the protagonist wasn’t a leader and didn’t address the wrongdoing. Infants consistently stared longer when leaders failed to act against wrongdoers, Stavans said. “But they held no particular expectation for intervention from nonleaders.”

In the third round of the experiment, one of the bears announced that it didn’t want a toy, and the other bear took both toys. In this case, the leader would either intervene to redistribute the toys or let the arrangement stand. The infants stared longer when the leader intervened to make sure that each bear had one toy.

“It was as if the infants understood that in this case there was no transgression, so they viewed it as overbearing for the leader to redistribute one of the toys to a bear who had made it clear she didn’t want one,” Stavans said.

“We knew from previous work that children this age have specific ideas about how followers will behave toward their leaders,” Baillargeon says. “Now we see that they also have complementary expectations about how leaders will behave toward their followers.”

The paper “Infants expect leaders to right wrongs” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Matches leadership.

Competence begets leadership in small groups

New research is looking into how small groups of individuals interact to make decisions — particularly the ones regarding leadership.

Matches leadership.

Image via Pixabay.

Large groups of people tend to operate via a “wisdom of the crowd” mechanism, whereby individuals tend to aggregate information from the group. Overall, this does (generally) lead to crowds taking better decisions than the individuals themselves. For example, Sir Francis Galton remarked that when a crowd was asked to estimate the weight of an ox at a country fair, their averaged answers was closer to the ox’s butchered weight than most estimates taken individually.

Small groups don’t really follow this same principle, a new study reveals — at least not when it comes to leadership.

Ask the boss

Researchers at the New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering worked with several groups of five volunteers, which they pitted through a 10-round cognitive test. Each participant was asked to estimate the number of dots displayed on a large screen and, without verbally communicating with one another, choose one of multiple answers using a custom-made clicker. The catch was that the image would only be shown for half a second at a time.

All 10 rounds were played consecutively in a single session. Because of how the test was designed, it was virtually impossible for participants to reliably count the dots — forcing them to guess, basically. However, they were given the chance to alter their answer in response to the choices of other participants.

Once all group members chose an answer, the screen displayed all current answers along with each member’s past performance (in selecting the correct number of dots). Participants then had a 10-second window in which to change their responses based on those of the others in the group.

“Individuals used social information more and more over time, and the more accurate the information, the more influence it had over participants’ choices,” said Porfiri. “Therefore, the relationship between participants’ performance and their social influence was reinforced over time, resulting in the emergence of group leaders.”

Individuals didn’t follow the simple majority rule, the team reports, as would be expected in a ‘crowd’. Instead, they were more fluid in who they followed, overall rallying behind the group members that had shown competence by performing best over time. Based on this observation, the team says that the group formed a dynamic network of interaction in which participants were nodes and the links were the consequences of social influence. For example, the investigators generated a link from one participant to another if the first had changed his or her answer to that of the second. The speed at which the network grew increased over the course of each of the rounds.

Participants were quite heavily influenced by social information when changing their answers. On average, they changed answers to ones that nobody else had selected only about 5% of the time — meaning that roughly 95% of changes mirrored those of other group members. Participants were more likely to be copied by others if their performances were good, even if their answers differed from those of the group majority.

Nakayama, the lead author, explained that the behavior of small groups is strikingly different from that of much larger gatherings of people.

“Where a large crowd would adopt a simple majority rule, with an increase in the accuracy of performance over repeated interactions, individuals rely more on social than personal information and as a consequence, good performers would emerge as group leaders, exerting a stronger influence on others over time,” says Shinnosuke Nakayama, postdoctoral researcher at NYU Tandon and lead author of the paper.

Such networks function much like neural networks in the brain, the team explains, where physically-distant neurons form connections to perform a specific function. Social ties in small groups evolve over time based on actions, they conclude.

The paper “Social information and spontaneous emergence of leaders in human groups” has been published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

Credit: Pixabay.

Too much of a good thing: very smart executives are less able leaders

Although intelligence is positively correlated with inspiring and capable leadership, there’s a point where a leader’s IQ offers diminishing returns or can actually lead to detrimental leadership.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The findings were made by psychologists at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, who assessed 379 mid-level leaders employed by private companies in 30 mainly European countries. The average age of the participants was 38 and 27 percent of them were women.

Each participant was asked to complete the Wonderlic Personnel Test, a cognitive ability test widely used by employers and educational institutions around the world. The average IQ of the participants was 111, which is well above the average IQ score of 100 for the general population.

Besides measuring intelligence and personality for each participant, the team led by John Antonakis also collected leadership performance ratings from eight people. These were either peers or subordinates of the executive included in the study which rated them on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. This test’s scores reflect a person’s leadership style, which can generally be seen as useful or detrimental. Useful leadership styles include ‘transformational’, which inspires, or ‘instrumental’, which facilitates a team’s goals by removing roadblocks. Passive, hands-off approaches are detrimental leadership styles.

Results suggest that, overall, women had better leadership styles, as did older leaders. The most variance, however, was due to personality and intelligence.

As previous studies showed, the Swiss researchers found that there was a linear relationship between intelligence and effective leadership — but only up to a point. This association plateaued and then reversed at IQ 120. Leaders who scored above this threshold scored lowered on transformational and instrumental leadership than less intelligent leaders, as rated by standardized tests. Over an IQ score of 128, the poorer leadership style was plainer and statistically significant, as reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

It’s important to note at this point at these ‘very smart’ leaders didn’t employ detrimental leadership styles but rather just scored lower than their ‘less smart’ peers on useful leadership style.

The study doesn’t explain why being ‘too smart’ can cramp a leader’s style. It could be that highly intelligent leaders overestimate their subordinate’s ability to carry out tasks, leading to friction. Very smart people could also be seen as outliers and, hence, less relatable by subordinates.

At the end of the day, leaders were rated by their subordinates, which could be more to blame than the leaders themselves. Ultimately, the level at which a leader performs also depends on the relative intelligence of its team members.



A stable boss is better than an inspirational leader for most businesses


Photo: spartandaily.com

Every business out-there, be it a corporate giant or a small shop, has it in its mind that it needs to employ highly original and market disruptive leaders in order to grow and prosper. A study that studied Chinese workplaces found that leaders don’t need to be transformational to lead a highly productive group. Instead, managers who are stable, reliable and closer to the team – as in part of the team, not someplace above it – have been found to help business become more successful.

Whenever inspiring business leaders are concerned, Steve Jobs’ name seems to pop-up. Indeed, in many aspects with Apple and Pixar, Jobs revolutionized business practices – this is why he was often called disruptive, shifting paradigms and changing the rules of the game. No doubt, Jobs was a fantastic business man, but his former employees might also recognize him as a draconian leader. If you got stuck with Steve in an elevator, boy were those three floors of hell!

A boss that’s one of you

Ning Li, an University of Iowa professor of management and organizations, sought to find whether inspirational and charismatic leader make that much of an impact by examining 55 work groups, consisting of 196 employees and their leaders, at two Chinese firms.  He found that a transnational approach to business did little to improve workplace productivity and willingness to engage in the business, especially if the sense of a team was already among the employees.

Employees that were found to be self-motivated, as well as those with traditional views, experienced the least impact as a result of  disruptive leadership. These people, the authors note, already put their best for the company because they genuinely believe that’s what they’re being paid for, and consequently don’t require or care for inspiration. Also, the researchers note, that at times transformational leadership was actually counterproductive because it ended up getting in the way of a team that was already functioning at a high level.

Concluding, the authors write that employees who view their leaders as closer or part of the team are more willing to cooperate between themselves and take charge of their own actions. The authors caution firms that they need to understand transformational leaders like Jobs or Bill Gates aren’t the best role models in all situation, and instead appoint managers based on the strengths and personality of the team and its members.

“Leaders need to tailor their transformational actions accordingly, rather than use a one-size-fits-all, group- directed, transformational style,” wrote the study’s authors, which also include Texas A&M University’s Dan Chiaburu, North Carolina State University’s Bradley Kirkman and Zhitao Xie of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

Findings appeared in the journal Personnel Psychology and the Academy of Management journal Perspectives.

Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse

Grandiose narcissist U.S. Presidents make for more effective leaders, study shows

Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse. Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with himself after gazing upon the splendor of his own reflection. A pathological admirer of his beauty, Narcissus eventually died of grief for not being able to reach the beautiful young man in the water. When thinking of Narcissus, whose story birthed the term narcissism to describe inordinate fascination with oneself or vanity, it’s hard to equate him with powerful leadership skills. Despite this, a new study found that grandiose narcissism in U.S. presidents is associated with ratings by historians of the overall greatness of presidencies.

There are two times of narcissism according to psychology: there’s vulnerable narcissism where the individual is marked by excessive self-absorption, introversion, and over-sensitivity; and there’s grandiose narcissism which characterizes extroverted, self-aggrandizing, domineering, and flamboyant personalities. Quite a few U.S. presidents share this latter personality trait and apparently it had something to do with how well they ran the country, according to Emory University psychologists.

“Most people think of narcissism as predominantly maladaptive,” says Ashley Watts, a graduate student of psychology at Emory “but our data support the theory that there are bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism.”

For their study, the psychologists analyzed 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, using data garnered from the insights of 100 experts, including biographers, journalists, and scholars who have established authority on one or more U.S. presidents. This data was then used to establish standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence, and behavior. Presidency term performance in history was scored using data from the C-SPAN (2009) and Siena College (2010) surveys.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest politician of them all?

Their results show that presidents overall exhibit an elevated level of grandiose narcissism compared to the general population and that in recent times the U.S. has had ever more grandiose narcissist presidents. This may be attributed to the rising importance of media charisma associated with higher popularity in election poles that favors candidates that are more attention-seeking and outgoing.

Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson scored the highest on the grandiose narcissism scale.

Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson scored the highest on the grandiose narcissism scale.

Current U.S. President Barrack Obama wasn’t included in the study, however, considering during his inaugural speech President Obama referred to himself 144 times and wrote two autobiographies before the age of 45, with not that much to show for prior to publishing, chances are that he too may be eligible for inclusion in this fine roster.

However, while the study suggests that a lot of U.S. presidents were rather shallow, this didn’t affect their leadership capabilities quite on the contrary. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson scored the highest of all former presidents, and although he failed to withdraw the nation from the Vietnam war, he did in fact run an ambitious slate of progressive reforms aimed at alleviating poverty and creating what he called a “Great Society” for all Americans. an ambitious slate of progressive reforms aimed at alleviating poverty and creating what he called a “Great Society” for all Americans.

“It’s interesting to me that these are memorable presidents, ones that we tend to talk about and learn about in history classes,” Watts says. “Only rarely, however, do we talk about most of those who had low ratings for grandiose narcissism, like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.”

Lyndon Johnson’s mixed presidential legacy reflects both positive and negative outcomes tied to grandiose narcissism,  Scott Lilienfeld, Emory professor of psychology says. “Johnson was assertive, and good at managing crises and at getting legislation passed. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a bully and antagonistic.”

Johnson is followed by the grandiose narcissism presidential ranking by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

“In U.S. history, there is an enormous variety in presidential leadership style and success,” Lilienfeld says. “One of the greatest mysteries in politics is what qualities make a great leader and which ones make a disastrous, failed leader. Grandiose narcissism may be one important part of the puzzle.”

Previously, the same team determined that fearless dominance associated with psychopathy is an important personality trait that may predict who gets elected for the presidency. Add narcissism to the equation and, well, this can only make you think.

The study was reported in the journal Psychological Science.