Friday, January 06, 2012

Nice Guys Finish Last - and Don't Become Leaders?

Nir Halevy, Eileen Chou, Taya Cohen and Robert Livingston have conducted an interesting study regarding the relationship between altruism and status.  First, they distinguish between two dimensions of status: prestige and dominance.  According to Livingston, “Dominance involves the use of intimidation and coercion to attain a social status based largely on the effective induction of fear.” Prestige derives from being a good person and demonstrating character that people respect and admire.

To begin, they divided participants into groups and created a series of experiments involving the allocation of ten game chips worth a total of $20. Then they examined how people rated fellow group members in terms of prestige and dominance.  They also asked people about the types of individuals who should serve as leaders of the groups.   Here is what they found (excerpt from Kellogg Insight):

In the first experiment, selfish participants—free-riders who kept all of the chips and contributed nothing to the group—were rated lower in prestige but higher in dominance than participants who contributed to the group. In subsequent studies, participants who harmed another group were also rated higher in dominance than people who contributed to their own group without harming outsiders. Finally, the most generous individuals—those who contributed to benefit both their group and outsiders—were rated lowest in both dominance and prestige. In sum, individuals were seen as more dominant if they were selfish and discriminated in favor of their own group at the expense of others.  When it came time to select leaders, dominance and prestige played distinctly different roles, depending on the type of leadership that was required. In instances where there was no intergroup competition, people preferred individuals with more prestige. But when groups had to compete against each other, dominant individuals rose to the top while benevolent people were least likely to be elected.

Does this mean that "nice guys finish last?"  It certainly seems that this might be the case.  Livingston argues, "Altruism is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, generous individuals are admired for their kindness, compassion, and willingness to help. On the other hand, they may be perceived as feeble ‘bleeding hearts’ who lack the guts to make tough decisions that might advance the goals of the organization."  He goes on to argue that we may not quite have it right when we say "Power corrupts."   In fact, in competitive environments, we may be selecting high dominance leaders who have a natural tendency to exhibit selfish behavior.

Let's be careful about making sweeping generalizations based on this experimental study though.  The studies involve judgments made based on one set of actions.  Life in organizations represents a repeated game.  We interact numerous times with others, and we make determinations based on the patterns of behavior that we observe.   Long term success is not simply about dominance.  It clearly involves prestige as well, as the scholars acknowledge in their study.   Moreover, I do believe that leader selection depends on the culture of the organization.  Certain organizational cultures do not tolerate selfish behavior.  Others enable it.   The values of the firm matter a great deal. 

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