Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Is leadership overrated? (maybe not, but only when it is genuine)

When the famous management professor Henry Mintzberg, in an interview for Dutch television, was asked “what would you recommend for leadership in the 21st century?” he answered, without delay or hesitation: “Less of it”.

Henry clearly thought we need less “leadership”, and more people who actually do stuff. And true; it has become a business buzz word and something that everyone puts on his list of career aspirations. However, not everyone can be a leader. Moreover, their effect often seems overestimated.

In reality, business leaders make very few decisions that really significantly impact the course of action of their firms. When a large corporation does well, we attribute it to the forceful, brilliant individual at the top (e.g. Jack Welch, Steve Jobs). When the corporation fails, we also hold the individual crook at its helm responsible beyond mercy (e.g. Jeff Skilling, Dick Fuld). Yet, these individuals’ influences might be overestimated, both positively and negatively, because their decisions often have very limited impact on the everyday practices in their firms.

Yet, I would say that that does not mean they have no influence. They surely do, but it might not be directly through their decisions. CEOs often have a much more symbolic role, in terms of providing inspiration and motivation. And that type of impact can be very real indeed.

Tolstoy – in his epic novel War & Peace, through the eyes of one of its main characters, Prince Andrei – seemed to understand that well. He described how one of the Russian commanders – prince Bagration – in a battle against Napoleon’s army, had very little real influence on how the battle unfolded: stuff just started to happen once the guns got rattling, whatever commands he did or did not shout. However, his presence, and perhaps his successful pretence of planning and control, did have some genuine impact:

Prince Andrei listened carefully to Bagration’s colloquies with the commanding officers and to the orders he gave them and remarked to his astonishment that in reality no orders were given but that Prince Bagration merely tried to make it appear as though everything that was being done of necessity, by accident or at the will of individual commanders, was performed if not exactly by his orders at least in accordance with his design. Prince Andrei noticed, however, that though what happened was due to chance and independent of the general’s will, the tact shown by Bagration made his presence extremely valuable. Officers who rode up to him with distracted faces regained their composure; soldiers and officers saluted him gaily, recovered their spirits in his presence, and unmistakably took pride in displaying their courage before him.

Hence, the impression we have of leaders’ actions, their determination and vision, do influence people lower in the organization, in terms of their commitment and motivation. For example, a study by professors Ping Ping Fu, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and colleagues, published in the prestigious academic journal Administrative Science Quarterly, asked 177 executives of 42 companies to rate their CEOs in terms of the questions “the CEO shows determination when accomplishing goals”, “the CEO communicates high performance expectations”, “the CEO articulates a compelling vision of the future”, and “the CEO transmits a sense of mission”. They then surveyed 605 middle managers of these same companies in terms of their commitment to the firm and their intention to leave. And the results clearly showed that middle managers who worked for a company whose CEO seemed more determined and better at communicating and articulating a sense of mission and vision, were more committed to their companies. Hence, the image that a CEO managed to exhibit of his leadership and control had a significant impact on the motivation of his middle managers.

Then Ping Ping and colleagues did something interesting. Using an innovative survey technique (called the Q-sort method) they managed to construct a measure of the CEOs’ values. Particularly, they measured CEOs’ self-transcendence values (the transcendence of self interests, enhancement of others’ happiness, and the acceptance of others as equals) and self-enhancement values (which emphasize the pursuit of one’s own happiness, success, and dominance over others) and, surprisingly, the findings described above were only true for CEOs with a healthy dose of self-transcendence values. By contrast, if the CEO secretly harbored some pretty selfish values (i.e. was high on self-enhancement), middle managers were not much motivated and committed to the firm whatever the CEO said or did.

‘What is surprising about that?’ you might think. Well, it may not be surprising that employees prefer their CEOs to have selfless instead of selfish values – I guess we all prefer our bosses to be selfless – but it is a lot more surprising that they are able to detect these values. Because what this study really shows is that, if you had multiple CEOs behaving in the exact same way – expressing a clear vision, showing determination, setting expectations, and what have you – only some of them would succeed in motivating their employees, where others would hopelessly fail. Because what sets the effective and ineffective leaders apart are the values they harbor, in terms of having their own or others’ interests at heart.

Apparently middle managers see right through you. If you, as a CEO, display all sorts of motivating, leadership type behavior, but secretly harbor some pretty selfish values, it simply ain’t going to work. You can shout and dance and do whatever you like, but this motivational stuff only renders the desired effect if you really mean it.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Six scientific ways to suck up successfully (it is not as easy as you might think it is)

Sucking up really isn’t so easy. You can’t just tell your boss “you’re the greatest” because (although he might believe you) he is likely to grasp that you’re trying to sweet talk him into giving you this job, a raise, or a positive appraisal. As a result, it might all backfire because, as we know from research, people who think you are trying to trick them are less likely to actually give it to you. No, sucking up – or ingratiation behavior, as we euphemistically call it in management research – is easier said than done.

But now we have some good evidence – from research by professors Ithai Stern from Northwestern and Jim Westphal from the University of Michigan – how you can make it work, so pay attention:

1. Frame your flattery as advice seeking. For example, asking someone “how were you able to pull off that strategy so successfully” is more likely to hide your underlying motive than “gosh you’re good”.
2. Pre-warn your target that you are going to flatter him or her. For example, let your sucking up be preceded by statements such as “you are going to hate me for saying this but… [gosh you’re good]” or “I know you won’t want me to say this but… [gosh you’re good]” or “I don’t want to embarrass you but… [gosh you’re good] – you get the picture.

Now you that you have mastered the previous two relatively simple skills, it is time to up your game. It requires a bit of planning, but then it is likely to be highly effective:

3. Repeat the opinion that your target expressed earlier to a colleague. You can’t just keep agreeing to everything your boss says in every meeting, now can you? So what can you do? Well, when you find out your boss’s opinion on a particular matter from a colleague, who had a meeting with him earlier, bring up that same topic and opinion to your boss next time you’re meeting with him, before he has had a chance to do so. He will be duly impressed with the sharpness of your analysis.
4. Compliment your boss to one of his friends. So, saying face-to-face to your boss over and over again “gosh you’re good” is unlikely to do the trick. What might work though is to say to one of his friends “gosh, he’s good”. That friend is likely to, at some point, mention to your boss “he sure thinks highly of you”. And since you did not say this to his face, he might actually think you were trying to avoid brown-nosing him! Expect a friendly smile and sudden pat on the back.

Now that you have gained these more subtle skills of sucking up, you are ready to move to the advanced level. This one is sure to work, and you do not even have to say to your boss (or anyone else) that he is the greatest. All you have to do is make him feel the two of you are birds of a feather.

5. Engage in value conformity. What we mean by this is that you start a discussion with your boss by expressing commitment to a cause, institution, or other code of conduct that you know your boss feels strongly about. For example, if your boss is a family-man, begin your casual talk with how important family is to you. Or refer to your joint religion, or if he is into environmental protection, become green too (at least verbally). When you start of with statements that indicate that you share the same set of values, your boss is going to look at everything you subsequently say in a different light.
6. Refer to common affiliations. Similar to the previous tactic, refer to your joint political party, religious organization, or alumni club. These tactics build on so called in-group out-group biases; all of us humans see people who are in the same groups as we are in a more positive light, and your boss is no exception. So emphasize your joint group affiliation, and he will like the rest of you too.

Do these things really work? Yes they do. Ithai and Jim examined these tactics constructing and using an elaborate database on 1822 top executives, measuring their ingratiation behavior (assessed through questionnaires) and various other variables. Subsequently, they examined a rather important outcome variable to these folks: how likely their CEO (i.e. their boss; the target of their sucking up) was to nominate and appoint them to another board of directors on which he served. Directorships are highly coveted (and highly paid) jobs - that is, they want them! And all 6 aforementioned ingratiation tactics worked getting them.

Ithai and Jim also examined what sort of people were more likely to use these 6 tactics to their advantage. Executives with a background in engineering, accounting, or finance were plain clumsy at it. It is not that they did not try to suck up to their boss; they did, but they did it the coarse way (“gosh, you’re great”) and therefore were unlikely to succeed.

The people most skilled at successfully using the six sucking up tactics were executives with a background in sales, law, or politics. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the professions we most mistrust (if not despise) to tell the truth: salesmen, lawyers, and politicians. They have had to practice these subtle ingratiation tactics all their lives. And it seems, also in the brown-nosing domain, practice makes perfect. And now they are reaping the benefits.