It sounds counter intuitive doesn’t it? However recent research by the University of Virginia (reported in New Scientist) concludes that critical people often rise to leadership because the disregard they show for social niceties makes them seem powerful.
Why is this the case?
Several experiments were undertaken to support the research findings. In one of them, groups of students were asked to review an artwork. Unbeknownst to them, two of the group participants were actors – one expressing critical views of the artwork, the other positive ones. The students were subsequently asked to rate the actors. They determined that the critical actor was more dominant and in control and so were more likely to elect them as group leader.
Negativity is frequently viewed as being impolite, hence individuals who transcend these social norms seem more powerful. Also it is thought that boldness is a sign of authenticity. Consequently critical individuals are often instinctively treated as leaders, even if we have a personal dislike of their behaviour.
Some things to think about
It makes a great headline – “research shows that if you want to become a leader quickly, be more negative”. Read the research and you might conclude that being more critical will fast track you for success. However:
Pursuing a strategy of ignoring convention will only get leaders so far. Eventually they run out of road, because at some point they are held accountable for what they have actually done about the issues they keep calling out.
Being critical takes a lot of energy as David Disiere, CEO of QEO Insurance Group said in an interview with Forbes:
“Negativity will drain your entire being. It’s nothing more than an obstacle on your path to success.”
An overly critical approach to life may stop you pursuing your dreams. Imagine if Steve Jobs decided to listen to others when they said no one would buy a smartphone.
However, Negative people can and do have a role in the team. By focusing on the issues in the road ahead they can save you from yourselves. They burst the happiness bubble and inject a healthy dose of reality by pointing out the issues that you need to deal with to make something work.
You do need to be careful with critical people because, conversely, they can also suck the creative oxygen out of a room and hold your business back by stifling innovation. Also, critical people, whilst a small minority in a business, can attract a disproportionate amount of management time.
Before you get carried away… it is a balance
Whilst being negative or ignoring social convention might get individuals into leadership quicker, there is a strong possibility that once in charge, their negativity will make them unpopular and so impact their tenure in the role. Hence, as a leader you have to be more than a one trick pony. If you read the research and conclude that you have to be a ‘naysayer’ to rise to the top, remember that once there you may need to rapidly re-evaluate this approach if you want to stay there.
Whilst the research indicates that boldness, from a positive perspective, is seen as a sign of authenticity, the reverse is also true. When public discourse is overwhelmingly negative, individuals who express positive, optimistic ideals may seem more powerful because of their opposing views. Hence you can choose to be authentically negative or authentically positive.
The researchers do highlight areas where more study is required to expand knowledge and understanding in this area. However, if you fell for the headline, perhaps the first lesson is that you might need to think a little more critically about life, but not to the extent where your success is built upon being a social norm outlier. That might be quite a lonely place, so choose wisely.