Are you new? Get bossy

by 13 Jun 2012

For many HR professionals joining a new team – and especially those for whom the new job is a major promotion – the instinctive thing to do may be to settle into the new role without ruffling too many feathers. But according to an expert in organisational studies, that’s the worst thing you could do.

Being ‘bossy’ is not usually looked upon kindly. What’s more, an extensive body of studies have concluded that collaborative management is the style that usually works best. However, that doesn’t hold true for new leaders who have something to prove.

Leaders who come into a management role with factors which could be seen to negatively count against them – namely their age, education, or experience – need to quickly and firmly establish their position by telling their subordinates what to do. That’s according to Professor Stephen Sauer from Clarkson University, who has said that for those bosses, it pays to be bossy.

The conclusion is the result of a series of experiments which time and time again found that leaders who were inexperienced received the best results when they were ‘directive’ instead of ‘participative’. “Low-status leaders who took a directive approach received higher ratings from their teams in terms of both confidence and effectiveness than low-status leaders who took a participative approach. And teams with low-status directive leaders performed better than those with low-status participative leaders,” the study found.

Case study

According to Sauer, if these results seem counterintuitive, imagine this: You’re on an experienced team member who gets an unfamiliar leader.

You look for clues about his status. How old are they? Where have they worked before? If the person seems like a lightweight, you’ll probably resist their attempts to influence you. And if the person asks for your input, chances are you’ll view him as lacking in competence.

Yet, if the person is directive and assertive, you’ll take that as confidence, and you’ll come to see them as more competent than you first thought.

On the other hand, Sauer suggested the most confident and effective leaders – whose teams performed the best – are high-status participative leaders. So long as a leader is viewed as experienced and knowledgeable, team members prefer and perform better under a participative style.

But high-status leaders who give orders are viewed as less confident and less effective, and the performance of their teams suffers.

So, if you sense that you’re viewed as experienced and competent, it’s best to give subordinates a say. But if you’re seen as a low-status boss, Sauer said you’re better off setting the agenda, establishing a clear direction and putting people to work on what you think needs to be done. Only after your status has risen should you introduce a more collaborative style.


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