Stephen Fry and Hugh Lawrie as ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ a 1990s British TV adaptation by Clive Exton from P.G. Wodehouse's ‘Jeeves’ stories. The series was a collaboration between Brian Eastman of Picture Partnership Productions and Granada Television
Ideas for Leaders #038

How Dominant Personality Trumps Competence in Teams

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Key Concept

Individuals that display higher levels of dominance within a group also attain higher levels of influence. Through two studies, the authors demonstrate how displaying certain behaviours can make a person appear to be more competent that they may in fact be. This perception in turn leads to greater, but perhaps unjustified, influence within a group.

Idea Summary

In the past research has consistently demonstrated the importance of ‘dominance’ as a personality trait in influential leaders. Understanding this, the authors through their new research found that dominant individuals achieve influence because they tend to appear competent to others, even when they actually lack competence. Furthermore, dominant individuals behave in ways that make them seem both experts at the tasks in hand and socially skilled, which leads groups to afford them influence and control. The authors used two studies to demonstrate this hypothesis.

In the first study, 68 undergraduate students were divided into same-sex groups, where they were unacquainted with the others, and given the task of inventing (fictitious) non-profit environmental organizations and for-profit websites. Team members from each group then rated each another on both their level of influence on the group and, more importantly, their level of competence. As predicted, the more dominant individuals were perceived by the others as being the most competent.

In the second study, 100 undergraduates were again assembled in same-sex groups; however, this time they worked together on a set of math problems instead of inventing an organization, with the problems taken from previous versions of the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT). Once more, the participants rated each other on the same competence and personality dimensions as in the first study. Even though the task required very different competencies to the first study, the results were almost identical. Dominance again led to higher levels of influence.

Regarding the results of both studies, the authors suggest their findings indicate that more dominant individuals achieve influence in their groups because they are seen as more competent by fellow group members - a pattern that holds up even after controlling for objective indices of actual task skills. As such, dominant individuals achieve higher levels of influence perhaps because they acted in ways that caused them to be perceived as more competent, despite not actually being any more competent than their less dominant counterparts.

Business Application

This research sheds important light on how dominant individuals attain social influence, and on how they may ascend group hierarchies by appearing helpful to the group’s overall success (as opposed to aggressively grabbing power) by displaying confident and initiative-taking behaviours, such as putting forth answers to problems before others do.

These findings confirm that groups do try to put the most competent - or rather, who they perceive as the most competent - person in charge. In conclusion, behaving in a way that makes you appear competent to others, even if in reality you are not, can in turn help you ascend social hierarchies. The authors suggest that instead of thinking of the term ‘dominance’ in terms of aggressive or intimidating behaviour, simply displaying competence and signalling value is the dominant approach that leads to greater influence within a group. 

However, the authors also warn that this can ultimately hamper group productivity and performance, as the group’s collective competencies would not be leveraged to the fullest. But other findings suggest that dominant individuals may not continue to behave in ways that signal competence over time, but in fact might speak less and less. Thus, eventually dominant individuals may gain a place in the hierarchy more appropriate to their abilities.

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Idea conceived

  • 2009

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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