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Boss Science


And yet, in their hardheaded way, organization psychologists incorporate their own version of the touchy-feely vibe. For the effective boss, openness may be the most important personality trait. Someone high in openness, as the expression goes, is open to new experiences, new ideas, new people. He’s not dogmatic. He likes diversity. He’s not a routinized taskmaster barking orders down the organizational chart. Organizations change quickly these days. They’re supposed to be nimble, and bosses are, too.

The conscientious person shows up on time, he meets deadlines, he’s got a good work ethic. He’s a dependable achiever. Conscientiousness may be most significant when climbing the ladder, less so when you’re at the top. Then, apparently, others can be conscientious, just as others can be agreeable.

The agreeable person likes everyone and enjoys being liked. It’s a great trait for the team member, less important for the boss. In fact, effective leadership correlates with low agreeableness.

Someone high in neuroticism is a natural alarmist. He’s antsy and prone to anxiety. He’s the office catastrophist; something is always going wrong. “I’m working with a hospital now,” says Adler. “You don’t want a hospital run by neurotics emoting stress all the time. You can’t project urgency.”

“Managers are rarely promoted based on their talent for leadership,” says Hogan. The challenge is to sort out effective leaders from effective climbers.

When it comes to whether one personality is good or bad, nice or mean, the organizational psychologist is agnostic. Given certain situations, you may want a neurotic boss. “What is good about a neurotic?” asks Adler. “Our research shows that neurotics are emotionally expressive. They’re candid and honest, and have a sense of urgency. Sometimes that’s exaggerated, which creates unnecessary anxiety, but other times it has a place.” Take financial services, which is subject to market fluctuations worldwide. “You need to operate in conditions of uncertainty,” says Adler. “In this case, a sense of anxiety, of alert, is not a negative. If you are not neurotic, maybe you can’t create a sense of urgency.” So your boss on the trading desk may be a yeller with a short fuse. That, quite possibly, is bad for the heart-disease rate, but good for business.

Adler and his colleagues sometimes observe the nuances of the different personalities by putting a dozen people in an ordinary conference room, the usual bland office setting with the firm’s founder pictured on the wall, a pitcher of water on the large rectangular table. The drill is to give them an hour to choose a location for a new office, or some other task. Then ask the group to vote for a leader. The exercise mirrors the way bosses are often chosen.

In its purest form, the purpose is to observe how the group interacts when there’s no structure. It’s Lord of the Flies in a conference room. “We study people exerting power” is how Adler puts it.

Often you find the Big Five represented. There’s at least one agreeable personality. He may have the best ideas but presents them politely, even meekly. There’s that neurotic, watching the clock. He’s the emotional one, his voice rising. There’s an achiever (an element of conscientiousness). He’s full of ideas and determined to figure out the best result. There might be an obsessive, taking notes, making sure everyone sticks to the topic. Invariably from this mix one person emerges as a leader figure, often the same type of person.

The researchers call the person who wins the nod “an emergent leader,” which they distinguish from “effective leader.” The effective leader will be suited by personality to manage others. The emergent leader seems bosslike, and, most of the time, gets the job. He’s the successful climber. But will he be the effective boss?

The Origins of Office Totalitarianism

“Leaderless-group research provides virtually no information about the effectiveness [of the leader],” says Hogan. “Rather it tells us about what a person must do in order to be perceived as leaderlike.” It turns out that people, including those who do the hiring, select bosses based on what they think bosses should be. Hogan points out: “Managers are rarely promoted based on their talent for leadership.”

The challenge is to go beyond the leaderless group and sort out the emergent from the effective leader; the successful climber from the good boss. The difficulty, as Luthans discovered, is that there is little overlap between the great climber and the great leader; 10 percent is all he found.

The narcissist, inevitably, performs well in the conference-room experiment, partly because the narcissist manages to act like he already is the boss. In leaderless groups (as at dinner parties) he’s an expert, which he doesn’t mind letting you know. Think of Harvey Pitt when he was the embattled SEC chairman. “It would be unthinkable to deprive people of my expertise,” he said, a few months before being forced to resign.

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