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Transcript: Why tops dogs are often the most vocal ones

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for the Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Gavin Kilduff who is a professor at the Stern School at NYU.

Good morning, Gavin.

GAVIN KILDUFF – Good morning, Karl.

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KM – So small-group leadership – you have been researching that. How does leadership arise in that and can we learn anything about that? How do we become a leader of a small group if we wanted to?

GK – Not surprisingly, people can ascend status hierarchies in small groups and become the alpha of the group by being more competent but more interestingly there are short cuts to status and leadership positions. Some of my research suggests that just by speaking up, by appearing confident and assertive, that people can ascend the hierarchy. For example, we had a brief study on a group of students working on math problems. We measured their actual math ability, but certain students who simply spoke up and offered more suggestions to the group task, even though they were no more skilled, were seen as more competent by their peers and they actually achieved a higher leadership rank in the group.

KM – So it's not necessarily about competency; they were all almost equally competent, but there was process skills that they could learn how to take leadership in a way that was not offensive to the rest of the group?

GK – What is really interesting about this is that it suggests that the sort of meritocracy of the group may be subverted. Certain people are just more assertive, more confident, and because people are meeting for the first time, they are trying to determine who knows what, [and] they look to that as a signal of competence although it is a very fuzzy signal. Those of us who just speak up more achieve leadership beyond our competency levels. Those of us who may be quite competent but shy may actually be underutilized by a group.

KM – It strikes me that one of the lessons of leadership is that we recognize that some people are quieter and as a leader we need to draw them out in order to get to their strengths. So this is one of the things that leaders would understand that we should do. The other thing is that it's the Peter Principle, a principle from the bureaucracy of the U.K. after World War 2, that you will rise to your level of incompetence. It sounds like this is perhaps the Peter Principle playing out in its worst case. Yes, so leaders need a degree of humility. They can get ahead by speaking up and being assertive, but at some point that is going to backfire. You have achieved this leadership position but you need to be successful in promoting group performance. So along with confidence and assertiveness, leaders should have a degree of modesty and an ability to encourage participatory decision-making and influence from less vocal members.

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