Do you think that your boss doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Does it seem that the only reason that he’s boss is because he talks a big game and people without any other ideas listen to him with little regard to the facts? And does your boss seem to think he’s great despite his seemingly obvious short-fallings? Well, science says that you’re probably right in your assessment much of the time. As it turns out, being a boss often means that you just have to confidently talk like one and managers tend to hold an overinflated opinion of themselves and their performance.
The evidence? A study by social psychologists at the University of California not only confirms the axiom that talking like a leader makes you seem like one in people’s eyes, but proves that the more dominating your personality, the easier it is to get away with incompetence. By taking a group of people and presenting them with challenges, the researchers tried to evaluate what makes someone a leader. The study’s participants generally tended to assign leadership roles and favorable ratings to people who spoke the most and seemed the most confident with little regard for the quality of their answers and suggestions.
When solving math problems from an old GMAT test, the same highly thought of leaders were the ones who gave the most answers, not the ones who gave the right answers. In fact, none of these emergent leaders were good at taking math tests according to their self-reported math scores from the SAT. The disconcerting revelations didn’t stop there. Participants gave any person who spoke up a higher rating than those who were quiet, even if these people said little or nothing of substance. So next time you’re in a meeting, consider speaking up even if you’re just agreeing with what someone else said. It makes you look good to the rest of the group and you don’t even have to make a genuine contribution.
I know it’s hardly shocking to those of us with years in the office under our belt, sitting with the bigwigs at meetings and wondering how they can talk for hours without really saying anything actionable. But this is one of those studies which confirms our darkest suspicions. When we’re choosing our leaders, we focus too much on flash and pay little attention to the substance. It’s also interesting to note that you could be seen as leader material by giving your team a cheery, confident pep talk, putting up a to do list and waiting until it’s all done to shake a few hands and say “oh, I had no doubts we can do it.” To top it all off, most of your co-workers would describe you in very favorable ways after you did nothing but talk.
But being seen as a leader and described in gushingly positive terms based on your confident exterior creates a big problem. A BusinessWeek Poll found that 9 out of 10 bosses think their performance puts them in the top 10% of their peers. Either there’s a new definition of top 10% or an overwhelming majority of managers have overinflated egos. So not only do bosses rise to the top by acting like experts, they also seem to think they belong at the top by virtue of their positions. If my experience is any guide, it’s much more likely that bosses who didn’t think their performance is top 10% material are doing exceptional work that usually gets overshadowed by big talk and confident smiles.