Stanford's Bob Sutton has a terrific post this week on his Work Matters blog. He reflects on some old research regarding the selection of leaders and its impact on group performance. S. Alexander Haslam and his colleagues published a paper in the Group Dynamics journal in 1998 called, "Inspecting the emperor's clothes: evidence that random selection of leaders can enhance group performance." They examined groups performing an experiential exercise called the survival game. Many MBA students have participated in this exercise during introductory organizational behavior courses. In this Haslam study, the researchers compared group performance under four conditions:
1. Formal selection of a leader (self-ratings by group members)
2. Information selection of a leader (group members picked a leader through a discussion)
3. Random selection of a leader.
4. No leader selected.
The findings demonstrated that the highest performing groups had used the random leader selection process. Naturally, I don't think we want to recommend random selection in real organizations based on the results of this study. However, the research does have important implications regarding the impact that the leader selection process can have on group dynamics. Sutton writes,
"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.'"