Another of those lessons on how life just isn’t fair. Apparently there is a collective belief among some (although not universal) that groups reward altruistic behavior by giving people showing altruism positions of leadership, higher rank, recognition, or simple respect. In other words, status is given to the altruist. This belief system fails to explain why leaders who behave selfishly attain positions of power, a pattern that seems pretty common. So keep that in mind as you read the rest…
Researchers are now telling us that being “nice” (aka altruistic) can actually pose a barrier to your ascent into a leadership position. Last month, we blogged about how nice guys get paid less than “not nice” guys. Well, guess what. Nice guys also get shut out of leadership positions.
Status has two sides: dominance and prestige. For dominance, think Al Capone. For prestige, think the Dalai Lama. Both have status. But they obviously attain status in very different ways. One through the threat of violence. The other through nonviolent views on democracy and religious harmony (and some would add, through reincarnation karma). And we would also add, one was absolutely terrifying while the other is sweet and the personification of inner grace.
[We use the word “prestige” here as it was used in the study, but that seems to be an inadequate term, as prestige can be achieved by numerous paths. The one used in this study was generosity or kindness, which isn’t by any means the only type of “prestige”.]
So researchers wanted to see what would happen if they had participants rate prestige and dominance separately. They had them play games in small groups of four where they were either allowed to contribute their “chips” to the group endeavor (thus accumulating prestige) or keep their chips to themselves (thus achieving dominance). After they played, the group members rated each other on dominance and prestige. Sure enough, those who selfishly kept their chips were rated “dominant” and those who selflessly contributed their chips for greater group benefit were seen as having “prestige”.
Then the research participants were asked to elect leaders for either a within-group task or a task wherein they would compete against another group of four. You can likely intuit what happened. If the task was a competitive one–dominant individuals were chosen. If the task was a cooperative one–prestigious group members quickly rose to the top.
The researchers conclude that altruism is truly a double-edged sword. Your contribution to the group is “nice” and you are a “nice person” but you may be perceived as “too nice” to have the guts to make tough decisions to advance the group in a competitive endeavor. So group members choose the selfish guy to advance them in a competitive endeavor. Those of us who have been in organizations where the selfish and self-centered guy attained a position of leadership know just how short-sighted this decision is for the life of the organization. Sometimes an organization or a group needs decision-making leadership, and other times what is needed is a consensus-builder.
So what do we make of this research? It would seem that effective leaders would have both dominance and prestige. You want enough dominance to be taken seriously as a leader who can make tough decisions. You want enough altruism (which confers prestige) to be able to have the support and trust of the group behind you. Being a nice guy alone isn’t enough if you want to lead. You have to show some dominance too.
Another application of this research that came to our minds was with regard to wealthy or powerful clients.
How will jurors view them?
How can we assist them in creating an identity that jurors will favor?
America tends to love wealth and power. We elevate such people to celebrity status and credit them with having something to tell us all about life that is simply laughable.
But in litigation, their celebrity (whether it is from being dominant or prestigious) is insufficient for making them worthy of compensation (if plaintiff) or of protection (if defendant). What jurors want to see are facts that justify a verdict, and a party who will use the verdict for the betterment of society, not just themselves. When we are doing initial case strategy involving wealthy clients (individuals and corporate clients) we think about public identity. The jury is not going to work collaboratively with our client, but they will judge that social demeanor as if they did. Among the early questions I ask are:
“What kind of charitable activity do they engage in?”;
“What community programs do they support?”;
“Are they donors to a religious organization?”;
“How do they answer the question: How do you give back to the community/country/world that has granted you such wealth and power?”
And I know that if they don’t have a good answer, we have a problem. Not only because we have nothing to brag about, but because I’m dealing with someone who is only focused on their own narrow self-interest. And jurors don’t like that.
We’re here to tell you that being dominant doesn’t always mean being selfish, self-centered and arrogant. And the sort of selfless “prestige” that was seen here is nurturing, but not a leader for all seasons. Dominance when tempered can also mean being decisive, seeing the bigger picture, and being willing to address conflict directly while still caring about the impact of those decisions on others. Now that’s a leader worth supporting.
Halevy, N., Chou, EY, Cohen, TR, & Livingston, RW (2012). Status conferral in intergroup social dilemmas: Behavioral antecedents and consequences of prestige and dominance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (2), 351-366 DOI: 10.1037/a0025515
Monty Python fans recall the optimistic pluckiness of the black knight who threatens King Arthur even after being completely de-limbed. “It’s only a flesh wound!” he chirps and asks Arthur to walk over to where the knight has fallen so he can bite King Arthur’s legs. King Arthur refers to him as a “lunatic” but also kindly agrees to call the one-sided duel “a draw” in recognition of the misguided pluck of the black knight.
Many of us have been in the role of the black knight in an organization. We want to do well. We don’t want to give up. We want to see our organization and our mission positively. But sometimes, we have to take that big tin can off our heads so we can see clearly. And every once in a while, we have to take a stand. It can be a quixotic mission. Or it can be a revolution.
It is axiomatic that leadership has a potential dark side. More contemporary examples of the “dark side” of leadership can be seen in the Enron implosion and even the Wall Street collapse. A leadership blog describes the “dark side” of leadership this way:
“It is sometimes called “the shadow.” This is the part that is negative and can create toxic environments. Characteristics can include greed, jealousy, envy, excessive competition, defensiveness, manipulation, … the list goes on. It is when the ego gets control of us and starts leading our thoughts and behaviors.”
It isn’t that the “dark side” stems from only negative or bad traits–quite the opposite. It can actually stem from good traits that simply become too strong and trip over into what might be called “tragic flaws”. Getting “carried away” with the power of leadership can be a very bad thing. And that, in turn, can be a very bad thing for your organization, your firm, your members, and your employees.
So how do you avoid this leadership trap?
Maintain trusted advisers who are not in your leadership circle. Get real feedback so you don’t live in a bubble of only those who agree with you or see things from your skewed perspective.
Curb your suspiciousness lest you find yourself in the awkward position of calling your followers/members dissenters when your leadership group, in truth, are the ones dissenting while the organization is in agreement.
Honor service and honor your members/employees. Recognize the loyalty of ‘loyal opposition’ and embrace positive diversity of views. You don’t have to agree with everyone. But you can honor their service to your firm or organization. No one likes to see leaders that deride or minimize members/followers. Be respectful. Keep critical and devaluing comments about individuals to yourself.
Give credit where credit is due. Great leaders do not create themselves. Their words and their behaviors spark commitment to “do good” among others. Fan the spark by acknowledging contributions.
And yet, when you are a leader, be unafraid to do the right thing. Just make sure it really is the right thing. If you wonder, act cautiously, and risk erring on the side of graciousness.
It seems only fitting that this post is going up on the week in which we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Here is an example of a man who was not perfect by any means, yet he inspired a huge cultural change. Being a leader isn’t easy. But it shouldn’t hurt those who choose to follow you.
Conger, J. (1990). The dark side of leadership Organizational Dynamics, 19 (2), 44-55 DOI: 10.1016/0090-2616(90)90070-6
Are you now, or have you ever been, in a crazy organization? Perhaps at work, at church, or a professional group (let’s not even consider a crazy family this time). It’s easy to get mad. It’s easy to be negative. And it’s understandable when some people throw up their hands and just quit. When you are involved in an organization whose leadership you disagree with–whether a non-profit, a small business, or a law firm–you have to find ways to manage yourself when leaving is not an option you wish to exercise.
And it’s hard. Litigation consulting can be a lonely business. Most of us work alone and when we find kindred spirits it’s a wonderful thing. It was in that spirit that a small group of us listened recently to trial consultant Karen Lisko offer a strategy for turning frustration into productive outcomes.
“When I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, I happened to sign up for a theology class that would have a profound effect on my life. The priest taught it based on one simple premise — bottom up. He taught that all great faiths, countries, and organizations survive because their members fervently believe that the power is at the bottom, not at the top. From that vantage point, you stick with the organization because of the principles and the group, not because of the leadership.
Why not turn frustrations now toward a positive rebellion that rallies the group around what brought them together in the first place? In essence, we encourage them to lead their membership from the bottom.”
I also recall a moment when my mother-in-law approached the head minister of her church during a time of great controversy, and told him that while she disagreed with him, she wasn’t going to leave, as others had. She explained to him “I’m staying because this is my church– our church– and you aren’t going to take it from me.”
It’s a fresh perspective that allows lots of productive strategies to emerge. All of us need that sort of contribution from “fresh eyes” now and then. Whether you are in the throes of case preparation and can’t see the forest for the trees, or in the middle of [yet] another meeting to rehash the same old stuff with partners and associates–fresh perspective is imperative. It can move you from frustrated, stuck, and pessimistic to energized, optimistic and excited for the future.
We’ve written before about leading our unethical leaders and other organizational issues–like psychopaths in the boardroom and those selfish meanies in your office. And those tactics come from a variety of fields of study. Add theology to the list. Lead from the bottom!