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They Are Idiots

I recently had an interesting discussion regarding the necessity of leadership and hierarchies in organising working groups of people. It was with a friend over a few beers at my favourite local pub, and as we all know, that environment often brings out the deepest and most valid observations regarding the state of modern society!

He thought that hierarchies were necessary and that having a leader which others submitted to the authority of was inevitable. I took the approach that many people don’t actually need leadership and that given the quality of the leaders who tend to arise, we would be better off without them.

Of course, as is always the case, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. There are people (such as myself) who are highly individualistic and work best without the burden of having to follow someone who has somehow acquired the mantle of authority. But there are others who would be totally paralysed without someone to tell them what to do.

But the problem is that in our “one size fits all” society everyone must become part of a hierarchy in one way or another and it is this lack of flexibility which I think causes the abysmal inefficiency, incompetence, and immorality we see in the modern world.

There is an unstated premise there though. That is: are many leaders, politicians, and managers really as incompetent as I tend to think they are? Note that I said “many” there, so I do agree that there are some genuine leaders around with great skills, but they are a tiny minority.

So what does the research say?

Well, long story short, that our leaders don’t know what they are doing. Most of them are so incompetent that they don’t even understand how incompetent they are, which is exactly what the well known Dunning–Kruger Effect would suggest.

That’s the quick answer but I think I should fill in a few more details than that, so I will list some summaries of studies carried out on this topic.

The research that first revealed the DKE was done in 1999 by psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning. They found that a certain subset of leaders not only gave themselves too much credit, also rated real experts as being less competent than themselves. Other studies since then have confirmed the effect.

The most harmful effect of this phenomenon is that a DKE leader can never be helped. Because they rate their own skills so highly and others so poorly they will never listen to advice, so there is no room for self-improvement. The advice for someone affected by such a leader is generally to document poor processes they are forced to undertake, not to try to advise the leader, to not take criticism from the person personally, and to move on to another position as soon as possible.

Robert Hogan is a psychologist who specialises in personality assessment and leadership. He claims that 60-75 percent of managers are incompetent and/or poor leaders. He has found numerous reasons for this, including the tendency towards narcissism, positions of power leading to the attitude that rules don’t apply, and the lack of meaningful mechanisms for promotion.

For example, one proposed mechanism which would lead to a better promotion system is to take notice of the recommendations of the people the person supervises, but this rarely happens.

More recent studies indicate the level of incompetence is closer to 50% but presumably this would depend on the degree of incompetence necessary before the person was classified that way. Either way, these are significant numbers and even if 50% are not incompetent, and therefore deemed competent, is mere competence sufficient when in a position of power over others?

Research indicates that most workers dislike their bosses to such an extent that the majority would prefer a new (and presumably better) boss instead of a pay rise. And the same study also found that bad people are hired into management positions because interviews tend to select self-confident people with narcissistic personalities, and these are exactly the people who should be rejected.

Of course, it may be that to be a good boss you must do things which your subordinates don’t like, but research has also shown that unpopular bosses tend to be bad for the organisation as a whole so that doesn’t really fit either.

One final thing is worth mentioning here too. Many authority figures justify their pay and conditions by citing the pressure and stress that comes with the position. But research indicates the opposite is true: as people rise in a hierarchy their stress levels actually decrease.

So it all seems very clear: people dislike (I was going to say “hate” there but it often doesn’t extend to that level) and despise their leaders not because they force them into doing things that are undesirable but necessary, or because they don’t like someone having authority, or because they can’t appreciate the difficulty of their work, but because the leaders are idiots!

Notes: Again, I should emphasise that there are good leaders who do a good job and this post is not intended to criticise all of them. And I haven’t offered an alternative to hierarchical leadership here but that might be a subject for a future post. Finally, I haven’t correctly referenced the research I have cited here but I could probably find the papers I made these notes from if anyone is interested.

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