Why we’re drawn to neg­a­tive lead­ers

The East African - - BUSINESS -


IN THE past decade, across bor­ders and sec­tors, we’ve seen an in­creas­ing num­ber of lead­ers known for a style that is vit­ri­olic and puni­tive. This led me to won­der how pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive rhetoric af­fects our per­cep­tion of some­one’s lead­er­ship. My sub­se­quent re­search shows that we in­stinc­tively tend to em­power naysay­ers.

As prior re­search has shown, we hu­mans cre­ate so­cial hi­er­ar­chies to pre­serve or­der and form rich ex­pec­ta­tions of how the pow­er­ful will be­have. We have evolved to be sensitive to the be­havioural cues that sig­nal these power dy­nam­ics. For in­stance, we of­ten as­so­ciate a per­son’s phys­i­cal height with power, which leads us to at­tribute more power and sta­tus to tall peo­ple. My re­search fo­cuses on whether peo­ple in­ter­pret naysay­ing — the act of negat­ing, re­fut­ing or crit­i­cis­ing — as a sim­i­lar kind of power-sig­nalling cue.

The 11 con­trolled ex­per­i­ments I con­ducted sug­gest that a causal link be­tween naysay­ing and per­cep­tions of power does ex­ist. In one study, I asked 518 el­i­gi­ble US vot­ers to read four pairs of state­ments made by US pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates dur­ing na­tion­ally tele­vised de­bates be­tween 1980 and 2008. They were not told the can­di­dates’ names or when each de­bate took place. Each pair in­cluded one state­ment that was pos­i­tive and sup­port­ive in re­gard to the coun­try’s fu­ture, and a se­cond that was crit­i­cal and neg­a­tive.

The study par­tic­i­pants deemed the naysay­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to be more pow­er­ful. They also said those can­di­dates would be more ef­fec­tive in of­fice, and re­vealed that they were more will­ing to vote for the naysay­ing can­di­date over the cheer­lead­ing one. In sub­se­quent stud­ies, across seven other con­texts, par­tic­i­pants con­sis­tently as­so­ci­ated naysay­ing with power.

And though they per­ceived naysay­ers as less lik­able and no more com­pe­tent than cheer­lead­ers or lead­ers who made more neu­tral state­ments, the par­tic­i­pants nev­er­the­less en­dorsed them as lead­ers of all the en­ti­ties I asked them about. This was true even if the par­tic­i­pants were told that they them­selves would be sub­jected to the naysayer’s lead­er­ship.

Act­ing in­de­pen­dently

Why? I sus­pect that in ac­tively crit­i­cis­ing an­other per­son or en­tity, naysay­ers could be per­ceived as act­ing in­de­pen­dently — a key de­ter­mi­nant of power. This, in turn, fu­els the per­cep­tion of naysay­ers’ power as be­ing un­teth­ered from so­cial con­straints or other peo­ple’s re­sources, mak­ing them seem all the more pow­er­ful. In­deed, data from four of my stud­ies sup­port the role of agency as one un­der­ly­ing cause of this ef­fect.

I also won­dered whether act­ing as a naysayer makes some­one feel more pow­er­ful. To find out, I con­ducted ex­per­i­ments in which peo­ple took on the roles of a naysayer, cheer­leader or neu­tral party. The re­sults re­vealed that, in­deed, naysay­ers felt more pow­er­ful than the other two groups.

Be­cause so many in­ter­per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions oc­cur re­motely and are text-based, rhetoric’s in­flu­ence on our per­cep­tions of power may now be stronger than ever. Whether we’re se­lect­ing lead­ers or de­vel­op­ing our own lead­er­ship abil­i­ties, it be­hoves us to un­der­stand how these dy­nam­ics work — for bet­ter or for worse.

Pic­ture: File

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