Wednesday, January 29, 2014

He Who Leads Leads Loudest

So here’s a good little tidbit to consider both for Scouting and for the classes I teach:

The guy (or gal) leading your group? It’s likely they’re in charge not because they’re competent, but because they spoke up first.

And why did they speak up first? Because, according to psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, writing in their book “The Invisible Gorilla,” they’re confident and used to “dominating” in situations.
Here’s what they say (emphasis mine):

They became leaders by force of personality rather than strength of ability. Before starting the group task [solving a series of math problems from the GMAT test], the participants completed a short questionnaire designed to measure how “dominant” they tended to be. Those people with the more dominant personalities tended to become the leaders. How did the dominant individuals become the group leaders even though they were no better at math? Did they bully the others into obeying, shouting down the meek but intelligent group members? Did they campaign for the role, persuading others that they were the best at math, or at least the best at organizing their group? Not at all. The answer is almost absurdly simple: They spoke first. For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and more forcefully.

So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers. The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. Only when confidence happens to be correlated with actual competence will the most able person rise to the top.

So what’s the lesson here?

First of all, I don’t think the lesson is that confident/dominant people are dumb. They’re not. They’re just confident and dominant. When a question is asked, they’re ready with an answer. They may recognize, as the group continues to form – through storming, norming and performing – that they’re not the most able person in the group (others may certainly be better at math, to continue the example) than they are. But they’re frustrated by the more able yet less dominant person’s inaction, even if that inaction is only a matter of seconds. An answer was requested, and an answer shall be given. With confidence.

Second of all, I don’t think the lesson is that less dominant but more able people are easily bossed around or cowed by more dominant individuals. Just as a greater ability at math is a trait they possess, they may equally desire to remain in the background during any group work, because that is also a trait they possess.

So what is the lesson here?

If you’re naturally gifted but content to remain in the background, either be prepared to stand your ground if the group is coming up with incorrect answers or information, or be content to see the group fail.

If you’re a natural leader, get to know your team and their strengths and weaknesses as the group forms so that you can identify the naturally gifted and rely on them to come up with the correct answer. Then supply the confidence and domination to convince the rest of the group that your expert is right.

And here’s the takeaway: Give your team the time they need to sort all this out for themselves. In other words, give your team time to form, storm, norm, and then perform.

I’m dealing with this in my scout calling. Last night, we worked on lighting fires with flint and steel, and it became clear that we have one scout who is highly competent at using the tools correctly to get a fire going. He’s also one of the quieter scouts, more content to hang in the background. Other scouts came forward as leaders, and the most dominant of all spent the longest time trying to get his fire started (his heart is in exactly the right place; he wants to perfect the skill). But as we and the scouts watched the dynamic of fire-starting, it’s clear where the “leadership” of the fire-starting crew is going to fall. And then we have to identify those who are good at taking direction from the fire-starter, so that their contributions of tinder and twigs doesn’t suddenly overwhelm the little fire and put it out.

Our role as scoutmaster and assistant is to provide the laboratory not only for the skill of fire-starting, but so that the boys themselves can sort themselves out and identify who is the best at flint and steel, and who is going to be the best at assisting, so that the fire is built, started, and maintained to the point that competence is achieved. We have to help the boys build competence so that when the time for confidence arrives, even those who are not naturally dominant can rise to the top because their peers have seen their competence and encouraged it enough so the natural confidence is there at the same time.

I’ve seen this in action, in my own son. He is not the most confident or dominant person in the world. But last year at scout camp, his peers recognized his ability in tying knots. When it came time for Colter’s Run – a weekly competition at Island Park Scout Camp that involves knot tying, shooting, running, canoeing and other events, the scouts in his troop recognized his knot-tying ability and gave him the confidence he did not naturally possess. He aced the knot-tying, helping to send our troop on to win the race.

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