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The Autocrat and the Role of Presiding Juror

Wednesday, December 18, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

autocratic leaderRecently, in a multi-panel mock trial, we held our breaths as a 60-something white male business man volunteered to be the presiding juror since he had a lot of experience leading groups. We had purposely loaded the group with only a single strong Plaintiff juror (and a second moderate Plaintiff supporter), knew the new presiding juror was a strong Defense supporter, and wondered if he would attempt to silence the Plaintiff jurors.

We knew we would have to interrupt deliberations if he did so despite very clear guidance (pre-deliberation) to allow everyone to be heard. We were heartened when the initial poll showed a 10-2 split and everyone summarized their thoughts. But, then the presiding juror said, “I’d like to roll back a bit and hear more from our Plaintiff jurors since that opinion is so different. We can learn from them and maybe they can learn from us.”

It was unexpected given the demographics and work history of the presiding juror. Looking closer, there was a clue in his background questionnaire. This was a man with three children, the eldest were in their late 30s and the third was 16. He had commented that it was a whole different world to raise the 16-year-old in than he experienced with the older siblings. That awareness of the importance of change and diversity of opinion in the world around him may have led to one of the most respectful and thoughtful deliberations we have seen, with a majority opinion listening carefully to the (clear and calm) opposing voice. It isn’t what we often see.

New research underscores the idea that the autocratic leader will dampen group collaboration IF the autocrat has a leadership role. If their role is not a formal one, however, the group will not allow the autocrat to take over and group discussion remains healthy and diverse. Researchers completed three separate studies with a total of 402 participants to arrive at these conclusions.

In the first experiment, they put participants into groups but secretly had one group member write (prior to the actual experiment) about a situation in which they had felt powerful. These are the instructions the secret writer was given:

“Please think about a time when you had power over someone. By power, we mean a situation in which you controlled the ability of another person or persons to get something they wanted, or were in a position to evaluate those individuals. Please write 4-5 sentences describing this situation in which you had power.”

This is a well-known way to induce feelings of power. Those who would be assigned as formal leaders were also asked to write about “how the experiences they wrote about could help inform the strategies they would use in team interactions the next day”. The next day, those “formal-leader writers” were given name tags that said “Leader” and in other cases, there was no formal leader assigned despite one member of the group being secretly “primed” (through the prior writing task) for feelings of power.

In the groups where the writer had a tag saying “Leader”, other group members experienced them as talking too much and reported a sense that group discussions were less respectful than in those groups without formal leaders. Team performance was diminished in these groups.

The writers that were not given a name tag saying “leader” were still vocal, but they did not drive the discussion in a negative way, and team performance was higher in these groups without the formal leaders.

The second and third studies replicated the key findings in Study 1 but Study 3 contains an important finding for litigation advocacy. In study 3, some of the formal leaders were given some additional information:

“Each member in the team is representing a different role. So, everyone has something unique to contribute to this task. Given every team member’s unique perspective, obtaining everyone’s views of the situation can be critical in reaching a good decision.”

You will likely not be shocked to learn that those leaders given the specific information on the value of each team member performed much more effectively. Specifically, they were not talking too much, not directing conversation excessively, and not disrespecting members of the group. The researchers conclude that when given formal positions of leaderships, leaders who feel powerful can lead to diminished team performance. When they are in formal positions of leadership, group members are more likely to defer to the leader. This dampening effect of a powerful or autocratic leader can effectively be diminished however, by simply instructing the leader on the value of every individual in the group.

We have advocated teaching jurors how to deliberate for a long time now, but in recent years have begun to specifically add the directive to let everyone speak and to interact respectfully so that the wisdom of the group can emerge. It has made a real difference in the quality of the information we obtain from our pretrial research, and, we believe, is directly transferable to the closing statement and teaching jurors how to deliberate effectively. The presiding juror we described at the beginning of this post took that directive to heart and acted in precisely the way this research would predict. That’s a good thing.

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For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita

Tost, LP, Gino, F, & Larrick, RP (2013). When power makes others speechless: The negative impact of leader power on team performance. Academy of Management Journal, 56 (5) DOI: 10.5465/amj.2011.0180

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2 Responses to “The Autocrat and the Role of Presiding Juror”

  1. The Autocrat and the Role of Presiding Juror http://t.co/1u2YxOEEuG #Trial #Law

  2. RT @KeeneTrial: New blog post: The Autocrat & the Role of Presiding Juror http://t.co/mUoXtJAaCi

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