When random selection of leaders enhance group performance, what can we learn of leadership?

This year, I am director of a course on Team leadership & Human Resource Management. Organising 200 students, 21 Teaching Assistants, and 7 lecturers keeps me quite busy! In reviewing literature for the course, I came upon an interesting article from 1998 where the authors had examined effects of different kinds of leaders on group performance.

In short, what they found was that when groups leaders where selected randomly (or more precisely, by alphabetical order of last name), groups actually performed BETTER at a problem solving task than when leaders were selected by performance on a leadership quality-test (formal selection), when leader selection was informal (by ”whatever means you see fit”), or no leader assigned.

The task was a ”survival” task, where a group is given a scenario where they’ve been stranded in the wild and the task is to rank a list of items in order of importance for survival - perhaps you’ve participated in something like this yourself.

The researchers think it may be the case that the formally selected leader felt superior and apart from the group, which would have led to the worse performance on the task. Everyone in the groups ranked items individually, and had to reach a group decision on rank. In groups with a random leader, members rank decisions deviated less from the group’s than in the formal leader or control groups. So, the random leaders were more just ”one with the group” than the formal leaders. 

A very interesting find in the paper was the attitudes and opinions given from leaders and followers. The randomly selected leaders were seen as less legitimate than the formal leaders, the formal leaders enjoyed their role more, participants in random-leader groups were less satisfied with the decision-making process. Formal leaders considered themselves more effective. This is all rather ironic considering that the random-leader groups made clearly superior decisions.

They further tested implicit theories of leadership by letting (other) people answer under which condition they thought groups would perform better. Not a single subject though that the randomly selected leader-groups would be superior - so clearly the results of their experiment are counter-intuitive.

What the paper does not answer is by what mechanism did the random leader groups perform better? If it was just formal vs random leader then ok, the ”formal leader feels superior” is a plausible reason that they perform worse as a group, as the leader might have had unwarranted influence on the results of the group for example. But that does not explain why random leader-groups perform better than informal leader or no-leader groups - this was not really adressed in the paper.

Perhaps the randomly assigned leader felt the responsibilities of the leader role but less of the ”glory” possibly associated with being selected from the test, in a way that positively influenced results. I believe there are some leader behaviours that are positive for making group decisions, for example, making sure that everyone is heard; and some leader behaviours or effects that are detrimental to group decisions, such as ones opinion/decision having extra weight. Leaders were selected by scoring high on ”leadership”, not by having special knowledge of survival situations, and so there is no reason to give any extra weight to their opinion on the ranking of items. Whether this is what happened can not be judged by the paper as it did not measure this exactly, so I am simply allowing myself some speculation here. :)

In either case, this does not mean randomly selecting leaders is always better. It is likely that the nature of the task, a problem solving task that had ”one right answer”, matters. It is the kind of task where ”wisdom of the crowd” would more likely lead to a correct answer - it is however very interesting that a random leader was more effective than no leader at all.

Personality effects on adaptability to changing task contexts

While analyzing the interview material from my study on manager's concepts of employee self-directedness (or self-leadership, or self-management - I have trouble zeroing in on only one word here, and also there are translation issues to the Swedish "självgående", meaning literally "self-going"), it seemed that self-directed behaviors were conceptualized in mainly two ways.

The first kind of self-directedness concerns the everyday running of things: keeping things moving, keeping all plates spinning, and seeing things through to the end.

The other kind is a more creative kind of self-direction. The ideal self-directed employee is described as intellectually curious, often intelligent, but most importantly with a will and motivation to learn new things and embrace change.

As I see it, these two kinds of self-directedness roughly correspond to the two personality factors of conscientiousness and openness to experience. With correspond, I mean that conscientiousness would likely correlate with the first kind of behaviors, especially finishing things, while openness would more likely correlate with adapting to new situations and a willingness to learn new things. It seems plausible. So of course, I searched for research in the area and found some studies.

In a very small but interesting study by Le Pine, Colquitt and Erez (2000), it was examined to what extent cognitive ability (intelligence), Conscientiousness, and Openness could predict decision-making performance at two times: one prior to, and one after, unforeseen changes in the task context. The task was a game where the participant was to judge threat levels of aircraft showing up on a radar using 3 "decision rules" - this makes it a rather special situation as the tools for judgment are given and participants "know" that at least one of them is correct. Contrast this with how Weick describes conditions for employees in organizations facing fluctuating environments: you have to search for patterns and order in the information you have with no assurance that it actually exists, and when you do find something you will get no answer as to whether it is correct. The situation in the lab is therefore not very similar to the situation in real life - as is often the problem with lab studies. On the other hand, we can be more confident in cause and effect.

The manipulation performed was that some time through the experiment, which rule was the correct one to use changed without any notification to the participant. Their task was to notice that their procedure was no longer working and to find and use the new relevant rule.

What the researchers found was essentially this: high g (intelligence) and Openness promoted decision-making performance after an unforeseen change, while Conscientiousness lowered it.

Having high g predicted pre-change performance while personality factors did not affect this. After the change, the strength of the g - performance link was increased - high g mattered a lot more for performance after the change than before. And, personality factors became as important for predicting performance, after the change.

This shows that past performance is not necessarily very indicative of future performance - if that future is likely to include changes unforeseen right now. The conscientious person may perform very well right now, but if things change, s/he may, out of a sense of duty and orderliness, have a hard time to throw things overboard as needed to unlearn & relearn quickly.


Le Pine, J., Colquitt, J., & Erez, A. (2000). Adaptability to changing task contexts: Effects of general cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Personnel Psychology, 53, pp. 563-593.

Why I still prefer to read on paper

Reading on paper is to me a more immersive experience. It's allows me to focus on just the meaning of the text and nothing else. I like to underline and make notes, which is more of a tactile experience on paper, which helps with remembering. A lot of what I read is on screens though, and I often use my Kindle app or similar because not needing shelf space and not having to ship from the US is also a good thing. But for understanding, paper is best.
Turns out it's not just my personal preference, but I have science on my side as well. :)
Studies in the past two decades indicate that people often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen. Preliminary research suggests that even so-called digital natives are more likely to recall the gist of a story when they read it on paper because enhanced e-books and e-readers themselves are too distracting. Paper's greatest strength may be its simplicity.
Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.

Scientific American: Why the brain prefers paper

Thinking out loud: Why self-directedness?

Today I read the paper A dissipative structure model of organization transformation (1985) by Gemmill and Smith, which inspired this post.

So far, the research I am doing for my PhD is about employee self-directedness or self-leadership. For my first study I have gathered interview data from managers about their perspective on employee's self-directedness - how to recognize it and why it is important (as it is often mentioned as a characteristic viable job candidates should possess). I can say that in some organizations, the true self-directedness of employees was more emphasized while in others the concept was more interpreted as moving quickly in a given direction without any need for manager action.

Taking a systemic view of organizations, however, I would argue that self-directed employees are of value to organizations whether their managers realize it or not.

In their 1985 paper, Gemmill & Smith present A Dissipative Structure Model of Organization Transformation where they emphasize that the model of dissipative structures is not just an analogy but expressive of an ordering of elements and processes that holds across several fields of research and levels of analysis - that it is indeed a bridge between the natural and the social sciences. Simply put there are principles of organizing valid for human organization as well.

The greater the misalignment with the environment, the less it can depend upon the environment for the energy it needs to renew itself. Consequently, it undergoes an entropy process, wherein its mechanisms deteriorate and the key elements of survival become inaccessible or randomly dispersed.

As environments change and fluctuate, organizations must adapt but by what mechanisms do they do that?

In DNA, it's through mutation. Because replication of DNA is not perfect, because there is some room for error, novelty is generated. And it is generation of novelty, or variation, that is the system's best tool for dealing with a highly variable and uncertain environment.

In social systems, organizations, variation is brought about through experimentation or as Weick (1977) put it: play!

The only possibility for effectiveness amidst extreme uncertainty, comes from the capacity to combine aspects of behavior that seemingly have no basis for juxtaposition in a traditional framework /…/ behavior which has no apparent value as long as the situation remains within the parameters where mechanistic processes are effective.

Relating this back to my empirical material, it is not by having employees following best practices to the letter, albeit "by their own accord", that you produce the kind of variability that will make your organization poised to embrace and adapt to the unexpected. At the same time, evolution does not happen through random mutations alone but through the combination of mutations and selection. One needs to simultaneously be willing to let go of "bad mutations" - one could thus be said to adopt best practice and shun the rest - and keep producing new variations. This is the crux of the matter.

Where to go from here? 

  • Explore -> double loop learning
  • Explore -> is everything "solved" already, if so then what is the actual problem?

Sources cited here:
Gemmill, G., & Smith, C. (1985). A Dissipative Structure Model of Organization Transformation. Human Relations, 38 (8), 751-766.
Weick, K. (1977). Organization design: Organizations as self-designing systems. Organizational Dynamics, 31-46.