Sunday, October 9, 2011

Is It Sometimes Rational to Select Leaders Randomly? A Cool Old Study - Bob Sutton

Is It Sometimes Rational to Select Leaders Randomly? A Cool Old Study - Bob Sutton

Is It Sometimes Rational to Select Leaders Randomly? A Cool Old Study

This term at Stanford, I am teaching a doctoral seminar on leadership. Of course, this one of the broadest and most confusing topics on earth. I am not qualified to teach a seminar on love or religion; so, for me, this is the most vexing topic I can teach. The topic for the first meeting was "cynicism." I started out by assigning academic papers that brought evidence and perspectives that undermined conventional assumptions about leadership and that even questioned why scholars bothered to study the topic at all (my friend and co-author Jeff Pfeffer raised this question in a 1977 paper called "The Ambiguity of Leadership").

The most entertaining paper we read was by S. Alexander Haslam and a long list of coauthors, called "Inspecting the emperor's clothes: evidence that random selection of leaders can enhance group performance" (Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1998, pp. 168-184). The two key studies in the paper entailed assigning student groups to play various versions of the "survival exercise" (see some of the variations here), where the group imagines that they have experienced some kind of disaster and are stranded (a plane crash, a broken car in the desert, and a nuclear war were used in these studies). The group's task is to rank order the importance of a dozen or so items that might help them survive the ordeal (e.g., a compass, map, loaded pistol, newspapers, cigarette lighter). The performance of the group is determined by comparing their rank-ordering to those produced by experts. This is, of course, just a simulation of reality. But I've participated and led these exercises and they are quite engaging -- I suspect many of you have had similar experiences.

Overall, the researchers compared the performance of these student groups under four conditions:

1. A leader selected via a formal selection process (self-ratings by group members)

2. A leader selected by an informal process (group members had a discussion and picked a leader)

3. A leader who was randomly selected.

4. No leader selected.

The consistent finding was that groups with RANDOMLY selected members performed significantly better than groups in all other conditions, and there weren't significant differences found between the other conditions. The researchers also did some follow-up surveys, and revealed some mildly interesting findings; notably, groups with randomly selected leaders rated their leaders as LESS effective even though their performance was BETTER.

The authors assert that this rather surprising finding -- which was fairly strong and replicated across two (albeit modest) studies -- occurs because performance on this task requires cooperation, input, and effort from all group members. They suggest that the very act of selecting one individual, of singling him or her out as better than the rest or simply focusing attention on that person, undermines the group's sense of unity and shared identity. They suggest that doing so may lead to social loafing. As they put it, in describing the impact of a contest for the "best" leader:

'In effect, their thoughts about the leader may have been of the form "if you're so wonderful, you can get on with it.'

I am still not entirely sure that these arguments are right, but I guess they make some sense (although they do not quite explain why groups that did not select leaders at all did equally badly -- the researchers suggest this is because the leadership role is necessary). Yet the study, imperfections aside, is provocative. I like it because it challenges so many deeply held assumptions about groups and organizational life. I especially like how it implies that just THE PROCESS of selecting the leader can provoke group dynamics that undermine the performance of the group as a whole. That is worth considerable attention as this is something that selection committees and such often forget -- and consistent with findings from many corners of the behavioral sciences that show "what you do is as important as how you do it." Also, while the survival games probably do not generalize well to most tasks in organizational life, another possible implication is that, if you are doing a task where no one has any special expertise or experience, you might try randomly selecting your leader.

What do you think? Does this have any implication in real life, or is it just one of those crazy studies that is irrelevant to real people and organizations?

P.S. As veteran readers of this blog may remember, I have written about the virtues of randomness before; check out this post about Karl Weick's cool ideas about randomness and wisdom.

P.P.S. Do not miss the link to the study from Arie below. More evidence that randomly promoting people might work! Thanks Arie, fantastically weird.

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