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Why groups fail (Hint: For the same reasons nations fail) Part 1
To solve the problem of abuse by power-hungry leaders, the first step must be the adoption of a worldview that makes it obvious.
Some experiments are like a good play, compressing profound truths into compact form. That’s how I felt when I read a 2010 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled“Divide and Conquer: When and Why Leaders Undermine the Cohesive Fabric of their Group” by Charleen R. Case and Jon K. Maner at Northwestern University1.
The article describes a series of experiments that reveal the perverse tendency of leaders to undermine the goals of their group to maintain their position of power. The participants were college students earning research credits in their introductory psychology class. The students were led to believe that they were leaders of a group of three other students doing a verbal problem-solving task. The better the performance of the group, the better the chance of winning a cash prize in a raffle draw. As leader, the student could control how other members of the group interacted with each other and how the reward was distributed, to varying degrees depending upon the different versions of the experiment.
The students were also led to believe that one member of the group was especially talented at the task. In some versions of the experiment, the student’s role of leader was assured but in other versions the leadership role could be reassigned by a vote of the group.
Like a play, all of this was made up. There were no groups- just a tissue of lies (innocent enough to be approved by a human subject review board) told to the students by the researchers. One thing was not fictional, however: Each student completed a survey called the Achievement Motivation Scale (AMS), which measured the degree to which they enjoyed having power over other people (dominance motivation) as opposed to wanting to be respected by other people (prestige motivation).
The field of social psychology has been criticized for some of these methods, including over-reliance on college students as representatives of humanity and the use of deception. The field of behavioral economics, which is really just social psychology by another name, forbids deception as a research method. Another concern is whether the elaborate ruse is likely to work. After all, the incentives for the students to get sucked into the play are extraordinarily weak.
Nevertheless, we are a dramaturgical species and the study has one great virtue that compensates for its weaknesses—the comparison of differences, including differences between students who are motivated to seek dominance vs. prestige and differences between the various experiments, which alter the imaginary social environment with surgical precision. What were the results?
In a nutshell, students motivated by dominance (but not students motivated by prestige) sabotaged their groups when their leadership position was threatened, but not otherwise. They did this (in different versions of the experiment) by limiting the ability of the most talented group member to send messages to other group members, by isolating the most talented group member in a separate room, and by preventing the most talented group member from socially bonding with the other members. All of these tactics were clearly detrimental to the objectives of the group as a whole, abusing the student’s role as group leader.
Just as a good play encapsulates what takes place in the real world, evidence for power-hungry individuals abusing their leadership roles can be found all around us- so much that once cued to the fact, one wonders why the experiments needed to be performed in the first place. But cueing—another dramaturgical word– is necessary. Much of the time, we think and act in ways that are oblivious to the dangers of leaders abusing their power and are taken by surprise when it happens.
An example that made the news in 2014 concerns toxic leadership in the American armed forces. By a series of coincidences, an anthropologist was thrust into the position of investigating the high suicide rate of soldiers during the Iraq war. He discovered that while suicide-prone soldiers had their own problems, they were often pushed over the edge by toxic leaders. Once discovered in this indirect way, toxic leadership began to be recognised as a systemic problem in the military. Here is how toxic leadership is currently defined in the army’s “leadership bible”(go here and here for more): “Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organisation, and mission performance.”
Sounds just like the social psychology experiments, right? But if the problem of leaders abusing their power is obvious, then why was the U.S. Army ambushed by it and why did one retired general call it an “institutional cancer”?
The military isn’t the only institution riddled by cancerous leaders. Business organisations are also afflicted. A classic ethnography of a business corporation titled Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by the sociologist Robert Jackall, reads like a real-life version of those social psychology experiments. As the description of the book on Amazon.com puts it: “Robert Jackall takes the reader inside a topsy-turvy world where hard work does not necessarily lead to success but sharp talk, self-promotion, powerful patrons, and sheer luck might.”
I have read enough of the business and management literature to realise that the entire concept of leadership taught in most business schools and the structure of most business organisations (at least in the United States) is setup for the kind of abuse by power-hungry leaders illustrated by that elegant social psychology experiment.
Clearly, something is happening that requires a reflection on the concept of “obvious”. Nothing is obvious all by itself; only against the background of other beliefs. Certain worldviews obscure the problem of toxic leadership, even though the problem is not only in front of our faces but slaps our faces again and again. To solve the problem of abuse by power-hungry leaders, the first step must be the adoption of a worldview that makes it obvious.
One such worldview is evolutionary theory, in particular Multilevel Selection (MLS) theory, which has an extraordinary range of applications in the biological sciences and is only beginning to appear on the radar screen of the human social and behavioral sciences2. Evolution is relentlessly relative. It doesn’t matter how well an organism survives and reproduces in absolute terms, only relative to others in its vicinity. Against this background, individuals who strive to maximise their relative standing in a group, even at the expense of the whole group, aren’t surprising. They are at the core of the theory. The main puzzle is to explain how individuals evolve to behave for the good of their group in ways that might decrease their relative advantage within the group.
We would be continuing this discourse in the next article. For further details call on me for in-depth discussions, business advisory services and training – send a message via WhatsApp or SMS.
– Nwaodu Lawrence Chukwuemeka (Ideas Exchange Consulting).
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