Experts like software developers, attorneys and even regular folks who do actual work are all too often led astray by the belief that working hard and being the best will somehow lead to the top. This belief is perpetuated by the powerful and their ilk because it’s not exactly true. New research by
Joey T. Cheng and Jessica L. Tracy, Alan Kingstone, and Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia; and Tom Foulsham of the University of Essex shows that you may be seen as a leader through pure expertise but you’re just as likely to gain respect by simply being pushy.
The study, “Two Ways to the Top: Evidence That Dominance and Prestige Are Distinct Yet Viable Avenues to Social Rank and Influence” [PDF], was published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology recently. It describes a test in which those who dominated others were seen as leaders in ad hoc groups, as were those with in-depth expertise.
That’s right: pushy was seen as just as valuable as working knowledge.
We all too often think that it’s the people who know more or who have the best expertise who win. But that’s not what’s driving most managers or most potential clients. They see someone who dominates and conclude “That’s leadership material!” because that person “kicks butt and takes names”, “gets things done” and “knows how to put a fire under those people”. It doesn’t matter that the results fail to produce value [see Secret Rule #4: Performance Doesn’t Matter]. What matters is that they look like someone who is leading.
And it often works. Bobby Knight made a career out of using fear and intimidation, and even out-right physical abuse, to motivate his young players to deliver wins.
The fact is that most managers and potential clients have no way of evaluating whether or not someone who does what you do is any good. They can’t judge you on your expertise so they fall back on success markers such as how you dress, how you present yourself (HT Mr. Goffman) and how much you dominate.
So perhaps you should stop being so pleasant to people. The meek may inherit the earth but the aggressive jerks get to have it today.