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On-the-job competence: simply a matter of speaking up

 

April 3, 2009

 

Haas School of Business Media Contact:

 

Pamela Tom

(510) 642-2734

ptom@haas.berkeley.edu

 

Ute Frey

(510) 642-0342

frey@haas.berkeley.edu

 

 

Anybody in the workplace, and perhaps politics, has probably experienced this perplexing phenomenon. The guy (or gal) in charge isn’t really competent for the job. How can this be? According to a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, those who act more dominantly are perceived as more competent, even if their actual skills don’t measure up.


Organizational behavior and industrial relations Associate Professor Cameron Anderson and doctoral candidate Gavin Kilduff documented their findings in a recently published paper, “Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-to-Face Groups? The Competence-Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance.”


To test this “great pretender” theory amongst perceived leaders, Anderson and Kilduff recruited 68 unacquainted students and divided them into 17 same-gender teams of four people each. The participants’ average age: 21 years. The researchers gave each team 45 minutes to design a mock non-profit environmental organization or a for-profit Web site. The winning team would receive a $400 prize. More importantly, the experiment required each participant to rate his or her colleagues’ level of influence on the group, and each participant’s level of competence. The sessions were videotaped so the researchers and an independent group of observers could also rate the students’ work. The independent observers were selected to reflect the subjects’ peer group.


The results revealed that team members with the most dominant personalities were rated the highest for such qualities as general intelligence, dependability, and self-discipline. At the same time, subjects perceived less outspoken workers as having less desirable traits, giving them high scores for being conventional and uncreative.


To be fair, Anderson and Kilduff wanted to give the alpha standouts of the group the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps these newly anointed leaders were indeed, more competent. A second experiment left no debate.


In round two, researchers asked the teams of students to solve computational problems taken from old versions of the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT). Participants reported their previous Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) math scores to researchers prior to trying to solve 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 as the leaders of the group. In addition, 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 of the heap.


Anderson and Kilduff’s work redefines what it means to be dominant in the context of influence. Past studies have aligned dominant behavior with aggressive, heavy handed tactics. This study found dominant people attain influence by displaying competence, “These findings suggest that dominant individuals may ascent group hierarchies by appearing helpful to the group’s overall success as opposed to aggressively grabbing power.”


While the findings may be troubling to some, they may be helpful to managers who may want to look a little closer when judging their employees’ true productivity and value. The study’s results may also help individuals achieve improvement in their own reputations – just by speaking up.


This paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.Vol. 96 (2), Feb 2009.


Cameron Anderson’s Bio: http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/faculty/anderson.html


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