In business, dominance primarily enjoys positive associations.
It’s one of the few fields wherein arrogance, narcissism, and a superiority complex are appreciated as bellwethers of success.
But is our worship of Gordon Gekko types misguided? A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science seems to suggest as much.
In it, a team of researchers from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, and the University of Texas posit that groups led by subordinate males outperform those led by dominant and aggressive males.
“Dominant individuals can force their will on the group by being pushy, but that also makes them socially aversive. When it comes to bringing peers to consensus during more sophisticated tasks, it is the least aggressive individuals that exert the greatest influence. Our results illustrate that although domineering individuals most often ascend to positions of power, they can in fact create the least effective influence structures at the same time.”
Influence is the keyword here. The quality of a task heavily depends on how influence is obtained on behalf of a leader.
Through force, executives can get their employees to carry out certain actions but getting a team to come to a shared harmony will undoubtedly yield more quality performances. This is especially relevant to complex tasks.
The authors began their research with Astatotilapia burtoni fish models.
Astatotilapia burtoni belong to the family Cichlidae. They’re an extremely social species of fish that can be found swimming around Lake Tanganyika and its neighboring waterways, including Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia.
“This species form groups with strict social hierarchies, in which dominant males control resources, territory, and space,” explained Mariana Rodriguez-Santiago, co-first author on the study and a doctoral student in the lab of co-corresponding author Hans Hofmann at UT Austin, in a media release.
With this study crop, the authors set out to distinguish social dominance from social influence.
Dominant fish and subordinate fish were conditioned to understand that a colored light appearing on one side of their tanks signaled that feeding time was near.
The experiment? Fish who were successfully trained about this process were placed into new groups comprised of untrained fish and researchers determined which group (those with trained dominant or subordinate males ) more quickly learned to associate a colored light with feeding time.
The researchers noticed that dominant fish exercised their dominance by chasing and pushing other fish about. However, the more complex the task, the less effective force dominance appeared to be.
In the case of the colored light–feeding experiment, fish essentially had a choice of who to follow.
Consistently, it was subordinate males who wielded the greatest influence in their social groups.
The groups helmed by a subordinate male fish reliably came to a consensus about which light to follow relatively quickly. They even swam together as a team to succeed in the task. With a dominant male as the control, groups were far slower to reach consensus. Though sometimes they never did.
“We ask if the colorful dominant males, which are aggressive, central in their social networks, and control resources, are most influential? Or if drab subordinate males wield the greatest influence, despite being passive, non-territorial, and having little or no control over resources.
“The same traits that make you powerful in one context can actively reduce your influence in others, especially contexts in which individuals are free to choose who to follow,” explained senior author Alex Jordan, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and at the University of Konstanz’s Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour.
Experiments using human models have come to similar conclusions. The strength of these findings survives on the conflation of authority and dominance.
Leaders are those capable of advertising their influence without forgetting social graces.