tHe is charismatic The company climber is a common target for dissatisfaction in office life. He – and research indicates that men are especially prized for such narcissism – grabs the limelight in meetings, is adept at snatching undeserved glory, and is a master at self-promotion. More often than not, he is the boss’s pet. But he rides on the back of another unknown company archetype: the competent, hard-working but unexciting achiever.
Studies have found that a lot of people with confident egomaniacals, misfits of management precision, get a boost for being, well, egomaniacally confident. Companies disproportionately promote narcissists. The researchers found that perhaps a fifth of CEOs fit the description, a much higher percentage than among the broader population. Self absorbed CEOIt can drain morale, and evidence suggests it leads to poor financial results.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychologist at University College London, made a strong case for the dull struggler, in an article for Harvard Business Review in 2015 titled “Best Managers Are Boring Managers”. Vague efficiency doesn’t scream intuitive with drive. Many totemic heads of this age, from bankers to tech founders, come with oversized egos, flashy antics and volatile emotions. Elon Musk can be accused of many things. Dumbness is not one of them. However, sentient but unlikable characters, Chamorro Premuzic argued, tend to have few notable but precious advantages. They can be relied upon to make decisions calmly, manage teams intelligently, and have emotional maturity. They deserve promotion ahead of their co-workers with “flash and vision, and bold displays of confidence.”
A basic meta-analysis of research on leadership characteristics, published in 2002 by Timothy Judge, then at the University of Florida, and colleagues found a link between managerial effectiveness and personality traits such as stability, agreeableness, and reliability. One explanation is that the level of sanity makes it easier to calmly deal with the many subtle problems raised by humans (who might easily anger a more volatile manager). Emotional maturity is also an indicator of trustworthiness. Studies have found that managers with dysfunctional traits such as narcissism are more likely to get nowhere. In contrast, conscientious bosses score highly for integrity.
Boring but diligent can be especially valuable now. As companies increasingly claim personal prizes, such as the ability to communicate well with all kinds of people, there must be a demand for emotionally intelligent workers. A volatile business environment in which companies face problems from recession to climate change, pandemics, and war, favors a steadfast leader.
CEOs face tough decisions about how much risk they should take in the pursuit of growth, as shareholders look on nervously. The heads of startups who moved so proudly fast and broke things are now falling over themselves to look demure. “We’re a pretty boring company,” says Oliver Merkle, president of Flink, a grocery delivery startup, financial times newly. The trend is evident in politics, too. America’s Joe Biden and Britain’s Rishi Sunak have risen to the top jobs in their respective countries, in part because their tedious credentials have promised relief from the blaring incompetence of their predecessors. Test times call for calm heads.
Despite it all, quietly competent types hoping for greater recognition (and reward) should not remain passive. To raise ranks, it is best for boring people to raise their profiles, whether by speaking up in meetings or talking about their accomplishments. If they get bigger jobs, they will anyway need to master showmanship things like delivering pleased clients, chairing meetings, and sticking to strategy. Although Mr. Judge’s analysis revealed emotional stability and general diligence were critical to managerial effectiveness, extroverted qualities such as sociability were also telling factors.
The corporate tendency to promote the wrong people is deeply ingrained, despite the warnings of management theorists. By default, many of those seeking promotions are themselves narcissistic advances by impressing their bosses. And brazen self-aggrandizement by flashy types does a convenient job for bosses, giving them a shortcut—no matter how misguided—to finding candidates for promotion. Many managers are too busy to patiently discover true talent. After all, they have other important things on their plates – like impressing their bosses.
Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Why It’s Time to Film Your Coffee Meetings at Work (February 16)
The pitfalls of loving your job too much (February 9)
The relationship between AI and humans (February 2)
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