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Ouch! Low Status Leaders Are Gluttons For Punishment

Life as a low-status leader can be a truly punishing existence.

It's the finding of a team of researchers from Rice University, the University of Texas and Universitat de Valencia. Their study, politely entitled "Cooperation and Status in Organization," was published in the August issue of the Journal of Public Economic Theory.

The researchers asked 80 study participants to play repeated rounds of a game where they could decide how much to contribute to the public good and how much to keep for themselves. Team leaders were chosen according to participants' scores on a trivia quiz. In one group, the person with the highest score ("high-status") was chosen as the leader. In the other group, the person with the lowest score ("low-status") was chosen to lead.

As the game wore on, it became apparent that team members were more likely to imitate the high-status leaders. Not only did they tend to ignore the low-status leaders, they punished them for trying to lead the group. The study concluded that groups headed by high-status leaders tend to be more stable.

Simply labeling someone as "the leader" doesn't mean the rest of the team necessarily views him or her as someone worth following.
"In a team, naming someone a leader is not sufficient to create effective leadership," said Rick Wilson, co-author of the study and professor of political science and statistics and psychology at Rice. "The status of the leader -- the way in which the leader is chosen -- determines the extent to which the rest of the subjects will follow."

Also, it doesn't seem to matter whether or not high-status leaders set a good example, which effectively gives them more wiggle room for risk taking.
"In teams with high-status leaders, followers are more likely to go along with them, even though the leader does not necessarily set a good example," Wilson said. "A high-status leader should be willing to risk making unilaterally high contributions to the public good, because the followers will do the same."

Not only are low-status leaders ineffective, they're gluttons for punishment. When the low-status leaders started punishing their teammates for not contributing more, the rest of the team started retaliating whenever it could. And round and round we go. Let the good times roll! Says Wilson: "The bottom line is that high-status leaders don’t need to punish because they are followed. Low-status leaders need to rely on punishment to motivate followers, but it is costly for everyone. It’s like they are the Rodney Dangerfields of the world -- they get no respect. When they use punishment to boost contributions to the public good, their followers retaliate."

Bottom line: People care about the process used to choose their leaders. A company that hires a new manager in a way employees can't respect will pay the price in low morale, lost productivity and little or no risk taking. The new manager, meanwhile, will be pretty much doomed right from the start.

After this, we all need a little bit of Rodney Dangerfield stand-up.


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