How Do Powerful People Stay on Top?
Tips for effective leadership from social psychology.
Posted Mar 16, 2016
All members of organizations face decisions about how to allocate time and energy. This is true at all levels within a group hierarchy. Executives make choices about long term organizational plans, managers must select appropriate projects for different units, and team members make decisions about how to schedule daily activities to best meet deadlines. What are some people doing so well that they get rewarded with leadership positions? The ones who rise to the top tend to do some important things differently. Here are three behaviors that characterize excellent leaders: Avoiding psychological traps, building effective teams, and recognizing mistakes.
Avoiding Psychological Traps
One temptation that some leaders face is the desire to show social dominance and intelligence as much as possible. Extroversion, confidence, and high IQ are all admirable traits and are indeed valued in a leadership position, however, there are times when a leader should step back and give the group the a chance to make suggestions and create solutions. Groupthink, a term from social and organizational psychology, refers to the tendency for group members to value group cohesiveness over everything else. In some cases this gets in the way of coming up with the best possible solution to a problem. For example, a group leader might state his or her opinion on a problem the organization is facing. A solution is needed and the leader suggests one. Then he wants to know what everyone else thinks about his idea. This can be problematic because many group members don’t want to disagree with the boss or show that they have an idea that differs
A better approach for the group in this situation is to hear as many ideas and solutions as possible. One way for the effective leader to manage this is to present the problem to his team and ask for uncensored ideas and discussion while holding back his own opinion - even leaving the room if necessary. Classic examples of groupthink include John F. Kennedy’s management of the Bay of Pigs crisis and the ill-fated space shuttle challenger in 1986. Both might have been avoided if the discussions that preceded them were handled differently. In group situations, people often desire harmony, unanimity, and “good-feelings”. Sometimes a little disagreement gives rise to creativity and better solutions. The effective leader is in charge of establishing this environment.
Building Effective Teams
One of the biggest challenges that organizational leaders face is who to place on a team. Do you want individuals who are highly motivated and conscientious? What about creative people? Or socially outgoing and agreeable people? Effective leaders should build groups with diversity in skills and personality. If you are leading a group that has to design a new solution for a product or service your company sells it would certainly be enticing to put together a group of brilliant engineers to solve the issue. However, if they all approach the problem the same way you are basically only getting one idea. On the other hand, if you bring in a team with variation in the way they approach problems you can avoid the issue of functional fixedness, or thinking about a problem in only one way.
Follow the news for just a short period of time and you might walk away wondering “how do we solve all these problems?” Experts are consulted and we hear statements like “we’ve got to create an environment that fosters healthy growth and education” or “we need to eliminate corruption in the system.” I agree. However, where is the effective action behind these statements? How, exactly, do we achieve these goals? It is much easier to state the goal than it is to carry out the change needed. Effective leaders are needed who can build teams that result in measurable actions. This might mean that people disagree with each other along the way, but the effective leader realizes that can be a healthy part of the process.
In Mistakes Were Made, But Not Buy Me, a brilliant book about the consequences of our choices, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aaronson make the argument that it is very common for people to make a small decision or behave in a certain way and then change their beliefs to make them consistent with their actions. Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance, or an unpleasant motivational state in which a thought or belief is not consistent with one’s actions. The end result is that people often change their beliefs to bring them in line with their own behavior. For example, you might put money in a tip jar at a coffee shop because it seems like the appropriate thing to do even though you really didn’t think the service was very good. This small inconsistency requires some psychological justification on your part. Why did you just tip when your attitude was the opposite of this? “Well, maybe the service was pretty good now that I think about it again.” This is dissonance reduction in action.
From a leadership standpoint, all of this dissonance reduction can be avoided by acknowledging mistakes upfront and moving on. Many people don’t want to ever admit a mistake for fear that it is seen as a sign of weakness. Politicians and celebrities can find themselves going down the wrong path as a scandal continues to grow out of control. Skilled leaders, on the contrary, will recognize the mistake early on and use it as an opportunity for growth, both privately and publicly.