Home > Research and expertise > Research highlights > Society, media and science > The downsides of looking like a leader


The downsides of looking like a leader


What is it about great leaders that sets them apart so that others will follow? Can  leadership qualities sometimes have a negative effect?

It is widely accepted that a confident demeanour helps people achieve positions of status and power. However, according to research by Connson Locke, Assistant Professor of Management at LSE, there are downsides to having highly confident individuals in positions of power.

During laboratory studies, she found that people participated less in a discussion when they interacted with a powerful person who exhibited confidence, compared to interactions with a powerful individual who appeared more modest. Moreover, people who interacted with a confident powerful individual participated less because they viewed that person to be more competent. People even deferred to the confident powerful individual’s opinions when that individual was wrong, leading to poor joint decision-making. It was only when the powerful individual non-verbally conveyed openness to others’ input, that the effects of their confidence on others’ participation was mitigated but only in terms of people speaking up more, not in terms of deference in poor decision-making.

In The downside of looking like a leader: Power, nonverbal confidence, and participative decision-making published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Dr Locke explains why a confident demeanour can propel people to powerful positions even when their ability does not warrant it: “People interpret confident nonverbal behaviour as a sign of competence and ability. Individuals’ actual competence resides within them and is hidden from others, and thus others are often forced to judge individuals’ abilities based on superficial cues such as nonverbal behaviour, appearance, or speaking style. For example, individuals are seen as competent when they exhibit an erect posture, give direct eye contact, and speak in a loud and confident tone. In turn, once individuals are perceived as competent, they are accorded more influence and are more likely to be placed in positions of power.

“In fact, recent research suggests that individuals with a confident nonverbal demeanour can attain positions of status and power even when their confidence is unwarranted.”

Dr Locke and her co-author Cameron Anderson of the University of California conducted three studies involving live interactions between undergraduates at universities in the US and UK. In the first, participants were randomly assigned to high or low-power roles to work on joint decision-making tasks, playing the manager and employee of a video store tasked with solving problems the store faced. To prepare for the task, the supervisor read two memos from “Head Office” describing the problems and possible solutions, while the subordinate performed a clerical task that was checked by the supervisor. They were then videotaped in a 15-minute discussion aimed at agreeing on solutions and independent judges rated nonverbal demeanour and participation.

In the second study, to help establish the causal effects of confidence, a person trained to convey a high or low level of confidence occupied the high-power role. In the confident demeanour he showed frequent and direct eye contact, sat up straight, spoke fluidly and at a comfortable volume, and used broad gestures. For the non-confident demeanour, he showed minimal and indirect eye contact, slumped in his chair, spoke quietly and hesitantly, and used uncertain gestures such as fidgeting. The experimenter, as the supervisor, and the participant, as the subordinate, took part in a task which involved choosing the best of three candidates for a job. The experimenter always chose the least qualified, using the same pre-scripted arguments. The participant then filled out an assessment of the supervisor who was perceived as more competent when he exhibited a confident demeanour. Consistent with the first study, participants also participated less with the more confident supervisor.

The third study examined a potential moderating condition: the nonverbal display of openness to others’ input. The supervisor, to manipulate an open demeanour, oriented his body toward the participant, uncrossed his arms and legs, and nodded and made eye contact while listening. He also began by saying, “What do you think?” In the closed condition, he oriented his body away from the participant, placing his chair at an angle, and did not nod or make eye contact while listening. He also said, “So I’ll go ahead and put that (his preference) down, shall I?” The open approach proved to mitigate the confident demeanour in terms of participation but not deference, meaning that people spoke up more but still deferred to the leader in decision-making, even when incorrect.

Dr Locke concludes: “We highlight an unfortunate irony, that a confident nonverbal demeanour helps individuals attain positions of power because it makes them appear more competent. Therefore, overconfidence can provide social benefits to the individual. Yet when those individuals attain power, the same confident demeanour can inadvertently stifle others’ participation – precisely because it makes them appear competent. Overconfidence can incur costs to the collective for the same reason it provides benefits to the individual.”

She adds: “These results do not necessarily suggest that individuals in positions of power should avoid conveying confidence, but instead that individuals in power should be aware of the full effects of their confidence. Moreover, our results suggest that those beholden to the powerful should beware of ceding to confidence particularly when confidence is not warranted.”

Posted May 2015

Useful links

To read the research article: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103114002078| 

For more information on Connson Locke: http://www.lse.ac.uk/researchAndExpertise/Experts/profile.aspx?KeyValue=c.c.locke@lse.ac.uk|