Overton: Why leaders make bad decisions

BY JON OVERTON | APRIL 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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All people think they’re above average. It’s pleasant to think of ourselves as smart or as good leaders. These are definitely great for our self-esteem, but oh boy, are there some pitfalls that come along with those delusions.

Christopher Kelley, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa who studies leadership and identity, is wrapping up his dissertation. In it, he conducted three studies that together suggest people are less likely to use helpful information when it threatens their identity in an important situation. When people avoid that information, it makes them feel more powerful and more certain that they’re right. But they also become less likely to get the right answer.

“Information is kind of like an outside agent,” Kelley said. “It’s like an expert telling you you’re wrong and nobody wants that.”

An identity is how you think you’re supposed to act in a role, but we have a lot of roles. The self-concept is made up traits that remain constant across situations. Another way to think about the self-concept is how Kelley put it: “a useful fiction.”

“You imagine that you’re the same person from situation to situation, but really, who you are in that situation is really dictated by the situation,” he said.

That’s not to say the self-concept is irrelevant. It helps us plan and figure out what we’re supposed to do, so it’s handy, but it is real in the sense that is has consequences in everyday life, like when your self-concept is threatened. If you want to do something and other people are telling you that you’re wrong, you’re not going to want to hear it because it casts doubt on who you think you are or how you think the world works.

“People want to do what they want to do, and useful information that could help them make a better decision towards their goal could limit their opportunity to do that,” Kelley said.

Using surveys, Kelley devised an inventory of terms that could measure a person’s leadership identity.

Then he paid participants to come into a lab and answer questions about what they’d do in certain situations as leaders. They had three options in each scenario. In one condition, participants were told that this was a test of their leadership abilities. The other condition posed no threat to individuals’ leadership identity.

The third study added additional pro and con information for each option in the leadership scenarios.

Although people with leadership identities in the higher stress condition tended to avoid helpful information, there’s still at least some good news in all of this.

Across both conditions, seniors were significantly more likely than freshmen to look at information, which, by the way, correlated with answering correctly in the experiment. That does suggest that maybe, just maybe, college works. However, Kelley was quick to point out that avoiding information that threatens one’s self-concept is a huge problem, especially for college graduates and all kinds of experts, though he has advice on how to avoid this pitfall of human nature.

“To know anything is to first admit you know nothing,” he said. “And if you can first admit you know nothing, going into any situation, you’re much more likely to learn, and much more likely to get the right answer.”

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