If a leader is thought to have gained their position based on prestige, they might not be judged so harshly for ambiguous transgressions, research says.
What do Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook have in common? Both are mega-players in tech (ranked 4th and 7th in the world for size) and both have recently been called out for violating the public’s trust – Facebook for its Cambridge Analytica data breaches and Google for similar dodgy practices around user’s data and the AdSense scandal.
For Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it wasn’t only his company’s name that was dragged through the mud, but his own too. The internet was ablaze with anti-Zuckerberg content – a lot of people were angry, but some just saw it as an opportune moment to work on their meme-mastery. There was even a viral movement to prove that Zuckerberg was, in fact, an alien.
While the public has every right to show outrage towards Zuckerberg and his company, it’s interesting that the same didn’t occur for Google. Yes, the tech giant itself faced public scrutiny for its wrongdoings, but its leader did not. In fact, you might not even be able to recall the man in charge at Google HQ (it’s Sundar Pichai).
While Zuckerberg shot himself to stardom, famously launching Facebook over many pizzas and beers in his college dorm room, Pichai slowly worked his way up in the company. He took over from co-founder Larry Page in 2015 after holding various roles in the product team.
Zuckerberg isn’t a likeable character. He’s considered self-centred, chauvinistic and two-faced (also, maybe an alien?). That’s not my opinion, there’s a whole movie about it.
Pichai, however, is a much more understated leader. It’s thought his leadership approach centres around being humble and fostering a culture of continuous learning. He’s widely known as being boring, but in the best way; he’s thought of as mature, effective and even-keeled.
Do their character differences mean Pichai’s name gets left out of searing headlines while Zuckerberg’s terrified facial expression is plastered across the entire internet? New research suggests, yes.
Dominant versus prestigious leaders
Researchers Hemant Kakkar and Niro Sivanathan of London Business School, and Matthias Gobel of the University of California, suggest we have a tendency to let the ‘likeable leader’ off easy and offer less leeway for their more aggressive counterparts.
In their paper, Fall from grace: The role of dominance and prestige in the punishment of high-status actors, the researchers look into ambiguous transgressions and how different leaders who commit these honest mistakes are treated.
They refer to a social psychology theory which outlines two ways in which people can achieve leadership status. The first is through dominance – think Donald Trump. These are assertive leaders who aren’t afraid to step on a few toes to get where they need to be.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Kakkar says these leaders don’t hesitate to “influence others through coercive or intimidating tactics. Because of their relentless proactiveness and agentic behaviors, others regard them instrumental for group’s success.”
The second way to become a leader, according to this theory, is through prestige – someone like Barack Obama. These leaders find their way to the top by sharing their knowledge and expertise and with a strong moral compass guiding them.
By putting these leaders into two categories, you can better understand the different ways in which they’re treated when accused of an ambiguous transgression.
What is an ambiguous transgression? Think a possible breach of a workplace policy, or the perception of favouring a particular employee, or – to borrow the example Kakkar cited – accidentally lodging an incorrect tax return.
“Since people view dominant leaders as selfish and unethical, this would make it hard to believe that a transgression was an honest mistake versus more intentional. And because prestigious leaders are perceived as less concerned with their own benefit, when they make a similar error and declare it an honest mistake, individuals would trust them,” says Kakkar.
Testing the theory
To put their theory to the test, the researchers first turned to an unlikely research environment: an ice hockey game. They measured the level of minor fouls (which are known to be more subjective) awarded to both highly paid ‘dominant’ players and lower paid ‘prestigious’ players. They identified a 13 per cent difference between both types of hockey players, with ‘dominant’ players receiving more minor penalties.
Next, they took their theory into the lab. Research participants were asked to undergo problem-solving exercises under the watch of an actor posing as the research lead. At the end, they were presented with a mistake in the problem-solving experiment that could come down to either human or a computer error.
The participants were split into two groups, one was led by a prestigious leader and the other, a dominant one. Dominant leaders were more likely to be blamed for the mistake while prestigious leaders were more likely to have their mistake put down to a technological error.
“We also conducted a study with a female leader to rule out any gender differences. Our results remained consistent suggesting that similar consequences would apply among women leaders whose status is based on dominance or prestige,” writes Kakkar.
Biases creep in
A common term to describe the dominant leader personality type is the ‘brilliant jerk’ – the type who’s likely to ruffle some feathers on their way to the top, but are very capable in their jobs.
Organisations have a long history of favouring the brilliant jerk in a job interview, and they’re often the first to be put up for a promotion. Why? Because these people are extremely good at their jobs, so good that hiring managers have their fingers crossed, hoping this new hires brilliance will outweigh their ‘jerkness’.
Even though many large organisations, like Netflix and Atlassian, have publicly announced a move away from hiring the brilliant jerk, this is a bias that dominated the recruitment space for some time.
But what this new research suggests is that perhaps organisations also show a bias towards retaining the prestigious leader. Sure, any kind of obvious misconduct would send them packing in the same way it would anyone, but if prestigious leaders are forgiven for ambiguous acts regularly, that sets them on an uneven playing field.
Having one strike against your name mightn’t spell the end of a career, but when these things start adding up it can become a problem. Whether someone’s a brilliant jerk or a humble teacher, when it comes to investigating potential misconduct, it’s important to separate the personality from the person’s actions.
Learn how to combat recruitment bias in your workplace with AHRI’s short course Managing unconscious bias.