Study Ties Status to Leadership Characteristics

Rice University political science professor Rick Wilson says one of the main problems leaders have in social organizations is how to get people to pitch in for the common good. To explore the issue, study participants took part in what’s known as a common goods game, in which they were given experimental currency units and asked to contribute to either a private or group account. The game was structured in a way that if everyone put all their units into the group account, each person would double their investment.

As for how the group leaders were chosen, participants took a non-related trivia quiz. In half the experiments the person with the highest score was the leader and in the other half, it was the person with the lowest score. Wilson says when group members were told someone scored well on the quiz they immediately gave that person high status characteristics and wanted to mimic their contributions, even though the quiz had nothing to do with finance.

"It's really common. This is something that's found in social psychology quite a bit and we've found this in experimental economics as well, that it doesn't take much to give somebody status. "

And Wilson says when leaders were acknowledged as a low scorer their status with the group was undermined, and contributions to the group pool tapered off in later rounds of the game.

"So, the upshot was that people would follow the high-status leaders. They would mimic public good, whereas they ignored the low-status leaders."

The experiment then went into a second phase, where people could punish others who they felt weren't contributing enough, by paying a fee to reduce that person's earnings. Wilson says high-status leaders were rarely punished or used punishment, because everyone wanted to be like them and make the same contributions.

"But when you looked at the low-status leaders, they really were trying very hard to get people to up their contributions, and they used punishment a great deal. And when they did, they were retaliated against. So often in these settings with low-status leaders, you found that A, they got no respect, and B, they were punished a great deal."

Wilson says it appears leadership is tied to either having earned the respect of others, or displaying a certain charisma. But achieving that in the workplace isn't always easy.

"I think that in office politics settings, we all know those leaders who try too hard and yet don't have the respect of the other people in the office. And they don't get very far."

Wilson says while you can duplicate respect in a behavioral experiment, it’s not always easy to achieve in real life.
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