All Swagger, No Substance

Prof. Cameron Anderson finds leadership does not necessarily equate with competence

Prof. Anderson

New research by Haas School Associate Professor Cameron Anderson suggests a simple strategy for individuals to improve their own reputations at work: Just speak up!


After conducting two experiments, Anderson and coresearcher Gavin Kilduff, a Haas School doctoral student, found that individuals who act like leaders – by speaking up and appearing confident – may be perceived as more competent, even if their actual skills don’t measure up.


Anderson and Kilduff, a PhD student in the Organizational Behavior and Industrial Relations Group, outlined their findings in an article titled “Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-to-Face Groups? The Competence-Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance,” published in the February issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


To test their “great pretender” theory, Anderson and Kilduff first recruited 68 unacquainted students and divided them into 17 teams of four people each. The researchers gave each team 45 minutes to design a mock nonprofit environmental organization or a for-profit website. The winning team would receive a $400 prize.


More importantly, the experiment required participants to rate their colleagues’ level of influence on the group and their level of competence. The sessions were videotaped so the researchers and an independent group of observers could also rate the students’ work.


The results revealed that participants with the most dominant personalities received the highest ratings for such qualities as general intelligence, dependability, and self-discipline. Participants perceived less outspoken peers as having less desirable traits, giving them high scores for being conventional and uncreative.


But what if these newly anointed leaders were indeed more competent? A second experiment left no debate.


In round two, Anderson and Kilduff asked teams of students to solve computational problems taken from the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT). Participants reported their previous Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) math scores to the co-researchers prior to solving the GMAT problems.


When it was time to reveal the answers out loud, the people who spoke up more were, again, the ones their teammates deemed the leaders of the group. It didn’t matter if the chosen leaders offered the correct answers, only that they offered more responses. What’s more, the leaders didn’t even have to provide the final solution to the problem to be exalted to the top.


While past studies have aligned dominant behavior with aggressive, heavy-handed tactics, Anderson and Kilduff found people attain influence by acting competent.


“These findings suggest that dominant individuals may ascend group hierarchies by appearing helpful to the group’s overall success as opposed to aggressively grabbing power,” Anderson and Kilduff concluded in their article.


While the findings may be troubling to some, they suggest managers may want to look a little closer when judging their employees’ true productivity, value, and competence. And for individuals, they suggest that just speaking up could help improve the way their peers and even their superiors perceive them.