Leaders who feel threatened, find it difficult to follow advice from others. What may be the reason?
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Leaders have to make decisions that are in the best interest of their organizations. Decisions turn out to be sounder if the leader is open to assessing and taking advice and suggestions from others into account before making the decision.
Nevertheless, we see that leaders and leadership groups make decisions on their own without paying attention to feedback and suggestions made by others.
As part of her doctoral degree at BI Norwegian Business School, psychologist Ingvild Müller Seljeseth wanted to find out why some leaders find it so hard to accept advice and input.
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Those who felt threatened were less receptive to advice
Seljeseth and her colleagues conducted experiments to find out to what extent people with power pay attention to advice given to them, and if so, whom they listened to.
The researchers recruited almost 200 students to participate in the first experiment. On their computer screens they were shown a picture of a glass filled with peas. They were asked to estimate how many peas the glass contained and enter in their answer.
The students were then assigned leadership roles where the positions of power were either secure and stable or insecure and might be taken from them if they made unsound decisions during the next phase of the experiment.
Then the participants were shown the same picture and asked to give an estimate of the number of peas in the glass. In addition to their own estimate, the screen also contained advice from a person who had performed the task before.
Which leaders paid attention to the advice? Was it the leaders who had everything to lose if they failed, or was it those who felt safe in their position?
"The leaders who were in a threatened position of power followed the advice to a lesser extent than those who were in a stable position of power", says Seljeseth.
In the first experiment the participants were only told that the advice had been given by a previous participant in the experiment, but not whether it had been given by an expert on this type of tasks.
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Are threatened leaders more critical?
Perhaps leaders who perceive their position as threatened are more critical of who gives the advice.
In order to examine this alternative, Seljeseth conducted a new experiment in the laboratory with a little more than 130 student participants. This time, the participants were given an indication of the quality of the advice they were given.
Some of the leaders were told that the advice had been given by one of the most prominent experts in the field, whereas others were given advice by someone with average competence.
When making their decisions, the leaders who were in a stable position of power paid more attention to the experts than to the non-experts.
What, then, did the threatened insecure leaders do, those who needed to be most open to qualified advice in order to change the course?
"Leaders who were in an insecure position of power did was less willing to follow the advice, irrespective of whether the advice was given by an expert or a non-expert", says Seljeseth.
Threatened leaders pay attention to machines rather than to human beings
Naturally, leaders who are in danger of losing their position of power, are stressed in a situation like this. When leaders are stressed and feel that their position is threatened, there is a risk that they become rigid. Often, they will then stick to their decision even if they receive qualified advice to change course.
However, there may also be another reason why they are not open to advice.
"By listening to advice, the insecure leader may believe that he or she will appear less competent than the adviser", Seljeseth suggests.
For an insecure leader, paying attention to advice may be perceived as a social risk and make him or her appear as incompetent, insecure and perhaps even indecisive.
In order to examine this possibility, the researchers launched a third experiment with in excess of 200 students as participants. Instead of estimating the number of peas contained in a glass, the participants with various leadership roles were asked to make estimates of the anticipated price development in the stock market.
If the case is that insecure/threatened leaders do not pay attention to advice because they fear to appear less competent than the adviser, the social risk may be removed if the advice is given by intelligent machines instead of human beings. Intelligent machines are not competitors in a quest for social high rank positions. The results from the third experiment support this hypothesis.
"The threatened leaders paid more attention to advice provided by data algorithms than by a human being", says Seljeseth.
When leaders feel that they are safe in their position, they are more prepared to listen to advice rather than when they feel that their position is threatened.
"The paradox is that leaders who would gain most from taking the advice of others, are less prepared to do so", she concludes.
- Ingvild Müller Seljeseth (2018): The Inevitable Thucydides’s Trap? How Hierarchical Instability and Threat Influences Leaders’ Openness to Inputs from Others”. Doctoral thesis at BI Norwegian Business School.
- This science communication article was published in the nettavisen forskning.no on 4 February 2019 under the heading «Derfor lytter ikke sjefen til andres råd».
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Text: Audun Farbrot, Head of Science Communication, BI Norwegian Business School.