Competence Cues


Two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley set out to solve the puzzle of dominance and perceived competence. They hypothesised that dominant individuals achieve influence because they appear competent to others, even though they might lack competence. Dominant individuals behave in ways that make them seem both expert at the task and socially skilled, which leads groups to afford them influence and control.

The Berkeley researchers were building on the body of knowledge that dominant individuals tend to display more of the superficial competence cues. In group settings, dominant individuals:

1. Make more suggestions and express their opinions more frequently
2. Speak in more assertive tones
3. Make more direct eye contact
4. Use more relaxed and expansive postures. 

The Research
The current researchers had groups work on math problems. Math problems allowed the researchers to determine group members' actual competence and perceived competence. The key aspects of their research involved:

- People working in groups of four.
- Self-assessments of dominance before the task activity.
- After the activity, group members rating each other on a) the extent to which each person had influence, b) on task competence, c) on leadership ability and d) on the big five personality dimensions. 
- Outside observers who watched a video recording of the group activity rated group members on the same dimensions on which group members rated each other. 
- Members of the research team also rated each group members  on the same dimensions. 
- Coding and tallying the number of times participants engaged in discrete behaviour that conveyed competence.   

The Findings
The study revealed a really interesting picture. The first part of the picture, not surprisingly, was that group members high in dominance attained more influence than individuals low in dominance. The next part was what they were seeking to determine: was the influence in the group independently related to the group's perception of the person's competence? Yes, individuals high in dominance tended to be seen as more task competent irrespective of their actual task competence. The same finding applied to perceptions of social competence; individuals high in dominance were perceived as more socially competent irrespective of their actual social competence. 

It wasn't just group members who attributed competence to dominant individuals. The same attribution was made by outside observers. As the researchers concluded, by validating the assessment by external assessors meant that it removed any distortion of internal group dynamics and supports the conclusion "that indeed dominant individuals seem to truly appear more competent than their less dominant teammates" irrespective of actual competence.
So dominance did not correlate to competence, only the perception of competence! Add to that that highly dominant group members tended to provide first answers to the math problems. So although they gave more first answers, these answers were not more accurate than later answers. Yet the groups accepted more first answers. Indeed, in 94% of occasions (in 171 out of 182 occurrences) groups used the first answer provided as their final answer. So dominant individuals were more influential but not at all more accurate. 

(Source: Anderson, C and Kilduff, G, "Why Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-to-Face Groups? The Competence-Signalling Effects of Trait Dominance" in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009, Vol 96, No 2, 491-503.)

So, here's the answer to this mystery of organisational life. If you have a healthy dose of the trait for dominance, you are more likely to be noticed by people you work with and people observing you (your executives and HR folks involved in talent and succession planning!) and are more likely to get on in your organisation irrespective of how competent you are!

To some extent dominance related to group influence serves groups well - we hardly want our group led by a passive, submissive individual. Yet we shouldn't be ignorant that competence might be illusory and attributed on a false assumption. 

What are the implications of this research?

First, you can now make sense of times when you looked at someone and wondered, "How did they get promoted?" As one of the managing up skills they might have appeared to be competent for no other reason than their dominant personality. Their dominance might be what's causing others to conclude, "They're good!"

Second, in reflecting on your own influence in a group you might be mindful to display non-aggressive dominance signals (such as speaking first or early, speaking confidently and making eye contact), particularly if you want to be noticed and get on and up in the organisation. 

Third, be aware that groups will tend to use the first answer to a problem which might not be from a competent individual and might not be the best answer. So take care when you are leading a group problem-solving session to not necessarily fall for the first-answer trap.

Fourth, when promoting people to roles try to determine real competence and not just rely on assumed competence that might merely be related to dominance. People who are not competent quickly lose the support of their team members.  

Andrew O’Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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