Striving to increase workplace diversity is not an empty slogan — it is a good business decision. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.
In a global analysis of 2,400 companies conducted by Credit Suisse, organizations with at least one female board member yielded higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those that did not have any women on the board.
In recent years a body of research has revealed another, more nuanced benefit of workplace diversity: nonhomogenous teams are simply smarter. Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance. Let’s dig into why diverse teams are smarter.
They Focus More on Facts
People from diverse backgrounds might actually alter the behavior of a group’s social majority in ways that lead to improved and more accurate group thinking. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, scientists assigned 200 people to six-person mock jury panels whose members were either all white or included four white and two black participants. The people were shown a video of a trial of a black defendant and white victims. They then had to decide whether the defendant was guilty.
It turned out that the diverse panels raised more facts related to the case than homogenous panels and made fewer factual errors while discussing available evidence. If errors did occur, they were more likely to be corrected during deliberation. One possible reason for this difference was that white jurors on diverse panels recalled evidence more accurately.
Other studies have yielded similar results. In a series of experiments conducted in Texas and Singapore, scientists put financially literate people in simulated markets and asked them to price stocks. The participants were placed in either ethnically diverse or homogenous teams. The researchers found that individuals who were part of the diverse teams were 58% more likely to price stocks correctly, whereas those in homogenous groups were more prone to pricing errors, according to the study, published in the journal PNAS.
Diverse teams are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective. They may also encourage greater scrutiny of each member’s actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant. By breaking up workplace homogeneity, you can allow your employees to become more aware of their own potential biases — entrenched ways of thinking that can otherwise blind them to key information and even lead them to make errors in decision-making processes.
They Process Those Facts More Carefully
Greater diversity may also change the way that entire teams digest information needed to make the best decisions. In a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Katherine Phillips of Northwestern University and her team divided sorority or fraternity members into four-member groups, each of which had to read interviews conducted by a detective investigating a murder. Three people in every group, referred to as “oldtimers” in the study, came from the same sorority or fraternity, whereas the fourth, the so-called “newcomer,” was either a member of the same sorority or fraternity or a different one. The three oldtimers in each group gathered to decide who was the most likely murder suspect. Five minutes into their discussion, the newcomer joined the deliberation and expressed their opinion as to who the suspect was.
It turned out that although groups with out-group newcomers felt less confident about the accuracy of their joint decisions, they were more likely to guess who the correct suspect was than those with newcomers who belonged to the same group.
The scientists think that diverse teams may outperform homogenous ones in decision making because they process information more carefully. Remember: Considering the perspective of an outsider may seem counterintuitive, but the payoff can be huge.
They’re Also More Innovative
To stay competitive, businesses should always continue to innovate. One of the best ways to boost their capacity to transform themselves and their products may involve hiring more women and culturally diverse team members, research suggests. In a study published in Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, the authors analyzed levels of gender diversity in research and development teams from 4,277 companies in Spain. Using statistical models, they found that companies with more women were more likely to introduce radical new innovations into the market over a two-year period.
In another study, published in Economic Geography, the authors concluded that increased cultural diversity is a boon to innovativeness. They pooled data on 7,615 firms that participated in the London Annual Business Survey, a questionnaire conducted with the UK capital’s executives that asks a number of questions about their companies’ performance. The results revealed that businesses run by culturally diverse leadership teams were more likely to develop new products than those with homogenous leadership.
Though you may feel more at ease working with people who share your background, don’t be fooled by your comfort. Hiring individuals who do not look, talk, or think like you can allow you to dodge the costly pitfalls of conformity, which discourages innovative thinking.
In a nutshell, enriching your employee pool with representatives of different genders, races, and nationalities is key for boosting your company’s joint intellectual potential. Creating a more diverse workplace will help to keep your team members’ biases in check and make them question their assumptions. At the same time, we need to make sure the organization has inclusive practices so that everyone feels they can be heard. All of this can make your teams smarter and, ultimately, make your organization more successful, whatever your goals.
Take advantage of a fresh mind to tackle big thoughts.
If you are one of those people like me who think for a living, then you’ve probably noticed just how much clearer your mind is after a break of some sort. Especially a break where you haven’t thought about work at all.
It turns out there is now some very good science that explains the value, importance and function of mental rest. In particular the research relates to our ability to have insights, the ‘aha’ moment when something that didn’t make sense suddenly changes. (There is also the idea of just giving overused circuits a rest, but I think the more interesting issue is around how we solve complex problems.)
The research points to the idea of valuing a fresh mind, as this is the time we are more likely to be able to solve tough problems. Instead of valuing times when our minds are quiet, we tend to automatically fill it up with emails or every day challenges that waste a precious commodity.
Research in the lab by Mark Beeman, one of the fathers of neuroscience research into insight, shows that we tend to solve about 60% of problems with the ‘aha’ phenomenon. No one has studied complex real world problems yet, but the figure is likely to be higher than 60% when there is no linear or obvious solution.
The insight phenomenon involves finding a sudden solution that you can’t really explain. It’s non-linear problem solving, and it’s the way we solve a lot of complex problems. There are several aspects to this research that are worth noting.
A rested mind isn’t stuck in the wrong answers
One aspect of the research on insight is work by Stellan Ohlsson. Ohlsson explores how we need to stop thinking about a problem one way before a new solution can emerge. I explain this in detail in a chapter in my forthcoming book, ‘Your Brain at Work’. Here’s an excerpt:
Ohlsson explains how when facing a new problem, people apply strategies that worked in prior experiences. That works well if a new problem is similar to an old problem. However, in many situations this is not the case, and the solution from the past gets in the way, stopping better solutions arising. The incorrect strategy creates an impasse.
“The projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited,” Ohlsson explains. “This is surprising, as we tend to think that inhibition is a bad thing, that it will lower your creativity. But as long as your prior approach has the highest level of activation, you will get more refined variations of the same approach but nothing genuinely new comes to the fore.”
So it turns out that the ability to stop one from thinking something is central to creativity. For example, if you are trying to solve the 6 letter anagram ‘Bmusic’ you would have to stop thinking about the word ‘music’ to get the correct word (which is ‘cubism’.)
After a vacation, this happens all by itself as your circuits for solving a problem one way have become less dominant. This idea also explains why I like playing musical pieces I have written on the piano after a long break. I tend to naturally do things differently, because the circuits are not held as tightly, and I stumble upon happy musical accidents along the way.
What this means at work is that new answers to tough problems are more likely to emerge into mind when you haven’t thought about a problem for a while. So use this resource, use your fresh mind, to tackle big challenges, not little things you could do anytime.
A quiet mind notices subtle signals
Another discovery about insight is that just before the moment when an ‘aha’ occurs, there tends to be alpha waves in various regions of the brain, connoting the auditory and visual cortices shutting down. Here’s how I describe this in Your Brain at Work:
Beeman has found that people experiencing insights have an intriguing brain signal just before the insight occurs. The brain in some regions goes quiet, like a car going into idle. According to Beeman, “About a second and a half before people solved the problem with insight they had this sudden and prolonged increase in alpha band activity over the right occipital lobe (the region that processes visual information coming into the brain).” The alpha activity disappeared exactly at the moment of insight. Beeman continues, “We think the alpha activity signifies people sort of had an inkling that they were getting close to solving the problem, that they had some fragile weak activation that was hinting at the solution somewhere in the brain. They wanted to shut down or attenuate the visual input so they could decrease the noise in their brain, in order to allow them to see the solution better. Kind of like saying, ‘Shut up, I am thinking about something.'” You all do this all the time, probably without noticing. You are talking to someone then just for a moment you avert your eyes, perhaps looking up, to be less distracted. It’s the brain’s way of shutting down inputs to focus on subtle internal signals. If you don’t do this, insight is unlikely to occur.
In another paper in the NeuroLeadership Journal, Beeman says that’…variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving’. So if we want to solve tough problems, it’s useful to tackle things where our mind is quieter, with less overall activation. Like after a vacation.
A happy mind is an open mind
Another study by Subramniam et al explored the mechanics involved in how positive mood increases the likelihood of insight, a fact that has been established in other studies since 1987. The findings are that positive emotions open up a broader awareness of internal information, allowing us to access those more subtle signals I mentioned above. This has been recently fleshed in research that shows that our field of vision literally opens up with a positive mood. The opposite can be true as well, negative emotions like anxiety make it harder to distinguish subtle signals amidst greater ambient neural activity. That happy feeling left over from your vacation is not just a good feeling, it can be an asset for tough problem solving.
The Clarity of Distance
What all this means is don’t use up a precious quiet mind to answer pointless emails. Use a fresh, rested mind to do the harder thinking, to tackle the big questions. For instance, think about what your goals are for the next quarter, what you should do about that tough problem, or what the next step in your career might be. The more subtle a problem, the more helpful it can be to tackle it with a quiet mind, when you have some distance from a problem. When we are too ‘close’ to an idea, either by knowing too much, having an agenda or experiencing strong emotions, it’s hard to see an idea completely. A recent study on creativity showed that distance literally makes you more creative.
Think of a snowy mountain. If you are a foot away you only see snow. Twenty feet away you see a slope. 100 feet away you see the contours. A thousand feet away you see that it’s the biggest
mountain in a set.
The further away from an idea, the fewer amounts of details you hold in mind, and the more context you can perceive. Seeing the big picture, the connections between information, is also more likely to active the right hemisphere, which appears important for insight.
For those just coming back from vacation, think carefully about what you are going to put your fresh, valuable mind to in your first few days. Value this resource highly. It may be your only chance to see the mountain you are on, to decide if you’re taking the right path up, or even if it’s the right mountain to be on at all.
The brain isn’t a muscle, but it still needs to “feel the burn” in order to build new neural connections that actually last.
BY MARY SLAUGHTER AND DAVID ROCK3 MINUTE READ
Remember being in middle school and preparing for an exam? Chances are you spent your study time paging through your class notes or rereading the textbook. Maybe you highlighted important details as you went.
We now know this is a pretty terrible way to study. You might’ve felt like you were absorbing the information, but you probably forgot most of it a few weeks after the test. In cases like these, you’re falling for what psychologists call “fluency”–you have a grasp of the information while you’re looking at it on the page. It feels good, easy, and reassuring. But that fluency doesn’t translate to actually recalling what you learned later on, let alone any change in skills or behavior.
Instead, quality learning requires what brain scientists call “desirable difficulty.” The more active the learning process, the better your comprehension and recall. It feels taxing, not exactly fluent or fun, and maybe even “bad,” depending on whom you ask. But the same way that you need a hard workout to increase your fitness, learning needs to feel strenuous in order to stick. It shouldn’t be a breeze. Here’s a closer look at why that is and what it takes to learn and remember things–without absolutely hating the experience.
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, IT’S PROBABLY WORKING
When learning is challenging, you have to pay more and better attention to each idea, causing your brain to build stronger connections between neural networks, which embeds the new knowledge for later recall. This adds greater weight to the phrase “pay attention”: You’re not going to have robust recall unless you pay for it with your attention.
Many organizations’ corporate learning programs focus on course completions, and making learning “easy and friendly” helps increase completion rates. On the surface, it looks good to reduce the amount of time spent on training and gets people saying they “enjoyed” the experience–which encourages others to take the training. But that doesn’t mean these programs are effective. Learning that doesn’t stick is wasted time.
Instead of passively reviewing material, go for active retrieval. Rather than highlighting a passage as you read it, try closing the textbook and writing down what you remember. Instead of rote repetition, use flashcards to quiz yourself and test your recall. It also helps to alternate between study topics–a process called “interleaving.”
In a study published earlier this year in Contemporary Educational Psychology, researchers compared two undergraduate physics courses that asked students to complete problem-solving tasks either before or after a lecture. Students who tackled them before the lecture came away with a better conceptual understanding than those who heard the lecture first. Working on the problems first made the students discover and infer relevant concepts, principles, and procedures on their own before hearing it from the professor–a process that was more difficult, but resulted in superior understanding.
Most important, let some time pass, then test yourself again. The longer you wait and the closer you get to forgetting, the more durably you’ll encode the new information into long-term memory when you force your brain to retrieve it. That’s why, as scientists say, the right timing gives you extra learning “for free.”
FEEL THE BURN
Unfortunately, the trend in many organizations is to design learning to be as easy as possible. Aiming to respect their employees’ busy lives, companies build training programs that can be done at any time, with no prerequisites, and often on a mobile device. The result is fun and easy training programs that employees rave about (making them easier for developers to sell) but don’t actually instill lasting learning.
Worse still, programs like these may lead employers to optimize for misleading metrics, like maximizing for “likes” or “shares” or high “net promoter scores,” which are easy to earn when programs are fun and fluent but not when they’re demanding. Instead of designing for recall or behavior change, we risk designing for popularity.
The reality is that to be effective, learning needs to be effortful. That’s not to say that anything that makes learning easier is counterproductive–or that all unpleasant learning is effective. The key here is desirable difficulty. The same way you feel a muscle “burn” when it’s being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning. Your mind might hurt for a while–but that’s a good thing.
The world is certainly going through a shift in the way we think about leadership these days. Executives have begun to recognize the importance of a people-first approach to business. Workplaces are throwing out the old hierarchy and beginning anew. We are questioning the norms of office culture and management, leading to better business outcomes, more engaged employees, and happier workplaces.
But what’s behind all this? I sat down with Dr. David Rock, who is paving the way in “neuroleadership.” With his team, he brings together global experts to develop the science of leadership development. It’s all about a research-backed approach to the way we think about, process and execute our leadership styles.
Read on for the latest in brain science and leadership. You’ll be a better CEO in no time.
How is brain research changing the way leadership and success is viewed?
“We are seeing a cumulative value to the recent research, rather than one particular study completely changing the game. There are enough studies within the last decade that enable us to build a complete language in what leaders do and what leadership is, linked back to biology. All of these different aspects of leadership–decision making, innovation, persuasion, collaboration, influence–have been studied at different angles. What’s new is now we are taking an integrative approach to it all.”
What do you mean by integrative approach?
“The state of the art right now is helping leaders have a more robust and complete language for the mental experience. One of the first ideas from brain research to make its way into leadership is the idea of an amygdala hijack–suddenly there is language for telling others that your brain is shutting down. If you understand an amygdala hijack, you should not try to talk sense into someone or make important business decisions.
We also have language to recognize the biases that get in the way of good decision making. We have language for why we like certain people and not others and how can we collaborate better. This language allows leaders to be more adaptive and develop better decision-making strategies.”
What trends do you see emerging in the business world as a response to these findings?
“We are seeing an interesting trend to simplify the whole approach to leadership development. So we’re getting rid of competencies and focusing on a small, memorable set of expectations for leaders. If people can only recall 3 or 4 ideas easily, having a leadership framework with 7 or 8 categories won’t work well. Simplify and focus on what is essential rather than try to do everything.
We are also seeing companies re-think their whole learning strategy based how the brain really learns. There’s a huge movement against ranking and rating people, and that is all driven by our research. Overall, companies are shifting the focus on increasing engagement, agility and collaboration.”
How do you change human behavior?
“The active ingredient to large-scale behavior change is facilitating insight in social situations over time. Research points to the importance of a three-step process: seeing something different in a social setting, having an insight about that behavior, and making these types of connections over time. Insight to action causes change. If you have those insights and discuss them in a social setting, you are more likely to want to change.”
How has learning more about your brain and leadership changed you?
“A thousand ways. I was fascinated to understand the brain because I wanted to wrestle down my own brain. I wanted to gain more control over the quality of my decision-making. I think I am significantly more effective at making great decisions–I am not perfect and am aware of all the mistakes and how biased I am, but over-all I have become a much better leader in my ability to manage my own emotions in the midst of complexity and chaos. I’m better able to connect with other people and bring people together. Also, my ability to read social situations more effectively has improved.”
What would be your top tips for someone to be a better leader in 2016?
“Start every meeting with complete clarity on what the objective is. Work out what your goal is, what you’re going toward. Then work out the best plan to get there, and be sure to foster a sense of clarity and alignment with everyone involved. Whether you’re in a meeting or having a conversation, be clear on the purpose and the plan. Throughout this process, continue to notice the quality of your thinking along the way–be meta-cognitive.”
ew of us enjoy asking for help. As research in neuroscience and psychology shows, the social threats involved—the uncertainty, risk of rejection, potential for diminished status, and inherent relinquishing of autonomy—activate the same brain regions that physical pain does. And in the workplace, where we’re typically keen to demonstrate as much expertise, competence, and confidence as possible, it can feel particularly uncomfortable to make such requests.
However, it’s virtually impossible to advance in modern organizations without assistance from others. Cross-functional teams, agile project management techniques, matrixed or hierarchy-minimizing structures, and increasingly collaborative office cultures require you to constantly push for the cooperation and support of your managers, peers, and employees. Your performance, development, and career progression depend more than ever on your seeking out the advice, referrals, and resources you need. In fact, estimates suggest that as much as 75% to 90% of the help coworkers give one another is in response to direct appeals.
So how can you effectively ask for help? How can you impose upon people without making them feel imposed upon?
The first step is getting over your reluctance to ask for assistance. Next, you need to understand that some common and perhaps intuitive ways of asking for help are ultimately unproductive, because they make people less likely to want to give it. Finally, you must learn the subtle cues that motivate people to support you and how to deliver them in the right way.
Costs and Benefits
Perhaps the easiest way to overcome the pain of asking for help is to realize that most people are surprisingly willing to lend a hand. When Vanessa Bohns, a professor at Cornell University and a leading researcher in this area, recently reviewed a group of experiments that she and her coauthors had done, she found that compliance—the rate at which people provided assistance to strangers who asked for it—was an average of 48% higher than the help seekers had expected. Clearly, people are much more likely to be helpful than we think they are. Studies also suggest that we underestimate how much effort those who do agree to help will put in.
That’s in part because saying no or helping only halfheartedly carries a psychological cost that we tend to discount. But it’s also because most helpers know—even if only subconsciously—that giving freely and effectively of themselves has emotional benefits. A Swiss study published in 2017 found that people who simply pledge to spend even a small amount of money on someone else feel happier than those who plan to indulge only themselves.
You can allow people to experience the natural highs associated with helping.
The key to a successful request for help is to shift the focus to these benefits. You want people to feel that they would be helping because they want to, not because they must, and that they’re in control of the decision. That means avoiding any language suggesting that you or someone else is instructing them to help, that they should help, or that they have no choice but to do so. This includes prefaces such as “May I ask you a favor?,” which make people feel trapped, and profuse apologies such as “I feel terrible asking you for this,” which make the experience seem less positive. Emphasizing reciprocity—“I’ll help you if you help me”—can also backfire, because people don’t like to be indebted to anyone or to engage in a purely transactional exchange. And minimizing your need—“I don’t normally ask for help” or “It’s just a tiny thing”—is equally unproductive, because it suggests the assistance is trivial or even unnecessary.
But you can ask for help in a way that avoids these pitfalls and instead gives people agency over their responses, allowing them to experience the natural highs associated with helping. That’s by using what I call reinforcements, or cues, which you can incorporate in specific requests. Perhaps more important, you can also use them in day-to-day interactions to prime the people around you for greater helpfulness.
One reinforcement you’ll want to give a potential helper is assurance that you’re on his or her team and that the team is important. This taps into the innate human need to belong to—and ensure the well-being of—supportive social circles. There are several ways to do this. For example, research by Priyanka Carr and Greg Walton (a graduate student at the time), of Stanford University, shows that simply saying the word “together” can have an effect. When participants working on puzzles alone were told that they were doing so in tandem with people performing similar tasks in other rooms and could later exchange tips, they worked 48% longer, solved more problems correctly, and said they were less depleted by the task than those allowed to believe they were working fully independently.
You might also cite a common goal, enemy, or trait, such as the desire to exceed your team’s sales targets, rivalry with a competitor in your industry, or a love of superhero movies. But the best way to create a strong sense of in-group is to highlight shared experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. For example, if a senior management team includes only two women, don’t just say, “We’re the only two women on the team” (emphasizing the trait). Say, “Have you noticed that we get interrupted all the time?” (shared experience).
A second cue for potential helpers involves creating or enhancing their recognition that they are uniquely placed (by virtue of their attributes or role) to provide assistance and that they are not merely people who might help you but helpful people who routinely come to others’ aid. For example, studies have shown that people contribute more to charity when asked if they would like to “be a generous donor” (versus “to donate”) and that children as young as three are more motivated to complete tasks such as cleaning up blocks when told they can “be a helper” (versus “can help”). Remember, however, that people don’t all have the same vision of positive identity, so tailor your message. Research on pro-environment appeals suggests, for instance, that liberals prefer phrases such as “care for the natural world” and “prevent the suffering of all life forms,” whereas conservatives respond better to “show your love for your country” and “take responsibility for yourself and the land you call home.”
People want to see the impact of the aid they give. This isn’t an ego thing.
Gratitude is another powerful way to boost helpers’ positive identity. A recent study by the productivity software company Boomerang of 350,000 e-mail exchanges found that “Thanks in advance” and “Thanks” yielded average response rates from 63% to 66%, compared with 51% to 54% for other popular options including “Best,” “Regards,” and “Cheers.” Even expressed preemptively, gratitude can keep people interested and invested in helping you, as long as you focus more on their generosity and selflessness—and what that says about them as people—than on how you’ll benefit from the help.
People want to see or know the impact of the aid they will give. This isn’t an ego thing. Many psychologists believe that feeling effective—knowing that your actions created the results you intended—is the fundamental human motivation; it’s what truly engages people and gives their lives meaning. Consider a study that Wharton’s Adam Grant conducted at an outbound call center in an educational and marketing software company. Employees knew that the revenue they generated supported jobs in another department, with which they’d previously had no contact. After one of the beneficiaries of their work visited and spoke to them about their impact on his and others’ jobs, the call center’s sales and revenue doubled. To ensure that your potential helpers know that their assistance will matter, be very clear about what you need and its projected impact. For example, when asking a colleague to review a client proposal, you might say, “Would you please review this before I send it to XYZ? Your input really helped my previous pitch to ABC succeed.”
Promise to follow up afterward, and do so. If possible, also allow people to choose how they help you, and be willing to accept alternatives to your original request. You want helpers to give what they can—and what will make them feel most effective.
What Helpers Need
Personal and Professional
When I explain to people how these strategies work in practice, I often give an example from my personal life, involving an IKEA bookshelf. About a year ago, a friend from graduate school asked me to help her assemble a particularly complicated one, and—this might surprise you—I eagerly agreed. That same morning, I’d turned down a request to review a submission to a scientific journal, ignored an e-mail from my daughter’s school asking for parent volunteers to help with an ice cream party, and grudgingly said I would do our family’s laundry but refused to fold it. So why was the DIY request an easy yes?
One reason is that the person asking was a long-standing friend with whom I enjoy spending time (in-group reinforcement). Another is that I’m weirdly good at such projects (owing less to my construction prowess than to my ability to interpret poorly written directions), and for years I’d been her go-to gal for help with them (effectiveness). And finally, whenever we work together in this way, my friend always wraps up by saying something like “Heidi, thank you. You are always so helpful and generous” (positive identity).
I’ve seen situations play out the same way in professional settings. Consider the head of product development at a learning software company who wanted more input with the sales department, which was making his team’s work difficult by agreeing that highly customized orders would be delivered according to near-impossible schedules. He pleaded to be included in discussions with clients but was often ignored; the people in sales believed that he would slow them down and be an obstacle to their success. Of course, all parties felt they were doing what was best for the company, but in their own ways.
Eventually, the frustrated executive decided to take a fresh approach to getting the cooperation he needed from his colleagues. He set up a meeting with sales leaders to talk through the product development process, realizing that most of the team had no idea what work was involved. In other words, they didn’t understand why their help was needed. He began to emphasize in every interaction that they all shared the goal of pleasing the customer to ensure repeat business, creating a strong sense of in-group with the sales team. Suddenly it was clear that everyone was on the same side. He also started describing sales leaders as the protectors of customer experience and talked about the power they wielded in determining the future of the company’s brand, which gave them a strong positive identity and motivated them to see and approach their work in a slightly different way.
Finally, whenever salespeople did what he asked and included him in the work proposal process, he made a point of following up with them to say how important it had been to the ultimate success of the delivery. They saw their help land and felt its effectiveness.
Over time, these strategies dramatically improved relations between the two teams, and the company saw increases in both client satisfaction and profitability.
When you next find yourself in need of help, remember that people are willing to give it much more often than not. Few will think less of you for needing assistance. And there is no better way to make someone feel good about himself or herself than to ask for it. It brings out the best—and the best feelings—in all of us.
Humans evolved in social hierarchies, and, as a result, we have significant cognitive resources devoted to identifying and then empowering potential leaders. However, incompetent or even malevolent individuals can take advantage of the cues we use to identify potential leaders, and rise to power even when they may be poor leaders, or even worse.
Charisma is a part of the problem. While charisma eludes a precise definition, the management professor John Antonakis and colleagues have delineated nine teachable tactics, including nonverbal behaviors, such as use of an animated voice, gestures and facial expressions. Then there are verbal tactics, such as the communication of moral conviction, of having high expectations, and of high confidence. Visionary leaders can attract and motivate followers, but they can also lead a group off a cliff.
Confidence is key. We don’t find just confidence attractive; Cameron Anderson and colleagues have shown in several studies that we’re even drawn to overconfidence. When people worked in groups, the most overconfident workers were seen by their teammates as the most deserving of respect and admiration, largely because they were seen as the most competent. Anderson also showed that hubris is motivated by the desire for status. Later work revealed that overconfidence is rewarded with status even when it’s revealed to followers as overconfidence. Yes, you read that right.
As well as charismatic individuals, we’re also drawn to narcissists, people who vigorously fight to maintain a positive self-image even at the expense of others, including people who often lash out at detractors. Amy Brunell and colleagues found that in work groups, narcissists with a strong will to power were ceded the largest leadership roles, but with no benefit to group performance.
Although narcissists can be energetic and charming, they also tend to be immoral and destructive leaders. In an analysis of every American president through George W. Bush, Ashley Watts and colleagues found that grandiose narcissism—assertiveness and immodesty—predicted several indicators of successful leadership, such as winning the popular vote and passing new legislation. But it also predicted unethical behavior, dirty politics, impeachment, and losing reelection. In romance, business, and politics, narcissists tend to wear out their welcome. We like to hire them, but then regret our choice soon after.
One holdover from prehistoric times is the appeal of dominant leaders, those who rule by threat and aggression—and might keep misfits in line or defend the group from violent outsiders. Anthony Little and colleagues found that when people were shown two men’s faces and asked whom they’d vote for to lead the country in a time of war, they picked the more masculine. In a time of peace, they preferred the more feminine. So an aggressive, dominant leader vying for power might depict a war with an enemy county, or something as vague as economic hardship or terrorism, thus attracting scared followers. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Mark van Vugt and Richard Ronay, who study the evolutionary psychology of leadership, have argued that our preference for male leaders may be a vestige of ancient circumstances, and that in an era that emphasizes communication skills and empathy over raping and pillaging, women might make for better executives.
Fear mongering can also increase existential angst, which can increase support for a leader who embodies a strong defense against the purported threat. A 2004 paper by Mark Landau and colleagues found that subtle reminders of the 9/11 attacks increased support or President George W. Bush and his anti-terrorism policies, among both conservatives and liberals.
An autocratic leader needs only to instill uncertainty to gather support. Several studies show that uncertainty can be treated by the limbic system in the brain as even more threatening and dangerous than actual threats. In a study by David Rast and colleagues, British workers who felt their futures to be uncertain—but not those who didn’t—reported appreciation for bosses who were “harsh,” “bossy,” and “autocratic.”
Once manipulative leaders gain control, they find underhanded ways to keep it, beyond starting a conflict or instilling general anxiety. Van Vugt and Ronay have noted several tactics: controlling information flow, eliminating rivals, criticizing subordinates, and offering short-term benefits at the expense of an organization’s long-term success.
Yet when tyrants gain control, we have more to blame than just the tyrant. Art Padilla and colleagues have written about the “toxic triangle” of destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. Charismatic and egotistical leaders take their greatest hold among followers who lack self-assurance or who share the leader’s ambition and selfishness, and in situations marked by instability, individualism, or lack of accountability.
The interactions between leader, follower, and environment create a feedback loop in which toxicity can self-amplify. But it allows a leader who is toxic in one circumstance to be well-suited for another. Recent work by Annebel De Hoogh and colleagues found that among retail teams with stable power dynamics, autocratic leaders increased intolerance and fear of risk-taking, thus reducing team performance. But in teams that suffered power struggles, autocratic leaders actually boosted safety and success.
So it seems there may be times and places for narcissistic, dominant, aggressive leaders—otherwise they would never have any appeal – such as when we have conflicts that may require an aggressive, dominant response. On the other hand, when collaboration is likely to be a better path to a healthy organization, or a healthy planet, we have to be careful not to let charismatic leaders use our psychology against us. Toxic leaders, like overly sweet deserts, might seem delicious in theory, but the results can leave a bad taste in the mouth, and give us indigestion for hours. Or in this case, in the real world for years to come.