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Why Inept People Become the Boss

Most managers are capable, competent men and women who administer and supervise their departments with great care, confidence and savvy. Those are the good bosses.

But how do people who are not only incapable, but also incompetent and inept, get into such positions of authority--be it in the workplace or in politics? How do these great pretenders rise to the top? Blame it on personality.

People with dominant personalities are perceived by others as being more competent--even if their actual skills don't measure up, according to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Led by Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff, the team recruited 68 unacquainted students and divided them into 17 same-gender teams of four people each. The participants' average age was 21 years old. The researchers gave each team 45 minutes to design a mock non-profit environmental organization or a for-profit Web site. They were told the winning team would receive a $400 prize. More important, the experiment required each participant to rate his or her colleagues' level of influence on the group and each participant's level of competence. The sessions were videotaped so the researchers and an independent group of observers could also rate the students' work. The independent observers were selected to reflect the subjects' peer group.

Team members with the most dominant personalities were rated the highest for such qualities as general intelligence, dependability and self-discipline. At the same time, the students perceived the less outspoken workers as having less desirable traits, giving them high scores for being conventional and uncreative.

Just to be fair, Anderson and Kilduff wanted to give the alpha standouts of the group the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps these newly anointed leaders were indeed more competent and not just more talkative. A second experiment left no debate. They really were just more talkative.

In round two, the researchers asked the teams of students to solve computational problems taken from old versions of the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT). Participants reported their previous Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) math scores to researchers prior to trying to solve the GMAT problems. When it was time to reveal the answers out loud, the people who spoke up the most were, again, the ones their teammates deemed the leaders of the group. In addition, it didn't matter if the chosen leaders offered the correct answers, only that they offered more responses. What's more, the leaders didn't even have to provide the final solution to the problem to be exalted to the top of the heap.

The takeaway: Dominant people who become managers often attain their influence by displaying competence--even if their skills contradict that. They do this by appearing to be helpful to the group's overall success, as opposed to aggressively grabbing power.

The study findings were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

--From the Editors at Netscape

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