Random selection of leaders

Dear colleagues,

If our leaders were chosen randomly, would our productivity increase? That's suggested by psychology experiments performed at the ANU.

The experiments are reported in S. Alexander Haslam et al., "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 researchers set small groups tasks in three different conditions: with a leader chosen randomly, with a leader chosen informally by the group, and with a leader chosen formally (as top scorer on a leadership questionnaire). Choosing the leader randomly led to better results in the task, even though members of these groups thought their group was less effective.

These results are counterintuitive. The authors did an experiment in which not a single subject predicted the results obtained.

What's the explanation? The authors refer to studies showing that "in the process of striving to become a leader individuals may display considerable concern for self-advancement and a commensurate lack of consideration for their fellow group members". A leader's concern for the group is important for group performance.

I was struck by the authors' citation of work showing that small groups "may be more likely to reach their goals when they (a) are composed of members who all believe that their contribution is valued ... (b) are composed of members who are cooperating rather than competing ... (c) are cohesive ... and (d) have the offices of leadership distributed between all members rather than concentrated in one person."

Of course, this research, like all research, can be questioned, challenged or dismissed as irrelevant. But I think it is worth pondering its potential relevance to our own situation. In one of the experiments, groups were told they were stranded in the desert after their minibus overturned and asked to pick which items would be most useful for survival. Are we so very different?

Brian Martin
13 October 2003

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