Those who talk the most, become leaders

Mads Nordmo Arnestad

If you want to become a leader, you must speak up often and talk at length. The quality of what you say is less important. The path to leadership is paved with a lot of blah, blah, blah.

A recent study from the University of New York demonstrates that those who speak the most in a group usually end up as leaders. Researchers thus found support for the so-called “babble hypothesis” in leadership. 

In the study, researchers found that the quantity of words used had a strong effect on leader selection, even after controlling for gender, age, intelligence, and personality. The quality of the words has little to no effect. It turns out that the path to leadership is indeed through a lot of blah, blah, blah.

This finding has several immediate implications and can explain many observations about the work life in our time.

Speak up!

The first implication is that if you want to become a leader yourself, you must speak up. What you say doesn’t have to be very smart, but you must open your mouth and share your thoughts, often and at length. This way, you signal that you have confidence in yourself and your ideas.

The equally valid implication is that if you are involved in selecting leaders, you must try to reduce this effect. Speaking up frequently does not necessarily indicate that someone cares, it can also be symptomatic of confident individuals who love to hear their own voices, don’t recognize the limits of their knowledge, and don’t bother listening to others. These are not good leadership qualities.  

Leaders prefer physical presence

Another observation that can be explained by this finding is the significant difference between leaders and employees regarding their preference on remote work vs. physical presence. Several studies show that leaders prefer physical presence much more than non-leaders. For example, one of these studies found that 75 percent of leaders wanted a general attendance requirement of three days a week or more, while only 34 percent of employees wanted the same. 

Leaders value the important information shared in all the informal workplace conversations. They see value in all that talk. This might not be surprising since they are the ones doing most of the talking. Employees, who are often quieter at work, may not always perceive this chit-chat as productive or helpful. 

Leaders like meetings

Another observation that this finding can help explain is that leaders like meetings much more than many employees do. In an attempt to explain why software developers hate meetings, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham makes a famous distinction between “manager’s schedules” and “maker’s schedules”. 

Managers and administrators often have days segmented into many short meetings and tasks. This is because managers often have many small problems to solve throughout the day. When managers attend these meetings, they talk a lot and feel efficient and productive. For makers, it might seem like managers are just sitting and talking, but according to them, they are “proactive agents of change, helping members of the organization with sense-making, uncertainty tolerance, and opportunity mindset.”

Makers prefer a different schedule. Developers, engineers, writers, and many other professionals rely on long, uninterrupted work sessions. This is because they are tackling a big problem, not many small ones. You can’t write a book or code new software an hour here and there; you need continuous time for uninterrupted thinking and development. Therefore, makers hate having to attend even just a few meetings during the day; it distracts them from the work they are trying to do. 

Organizations depend on communication and coordination, but they also depend on makers trying to solve significant problems. However, the modern organizational schedule is completely dominated by managers’ preferences. 

The manager’s schedule holds all the power and overrides the maker’s desire for freedom from small meetings with a lot of manager talk. This power could be distributed more evenly to allow makers to protect some of their time and shield themselves from too much manager talk. 

This article was first published on DN.no 

Published 29. November 2023

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