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Behavioral Salience

We have noted that impression formation begins when an observer notices a particularly salient behavior. Behavioral salience is an important part of the process by which group members come to judge one another's leadership. In fact, some of the variables involved in leader emergence work the way they do because they make a person's behavior particularly salient.

Amount of communication. When someone is talking, we are likely to pay attention to them. Thus, the more a person talks during group discussion, the more attention they receive from the other members. Given this, it should not be surprising that talkative members are more likely to emerge as leaders than non-talkative members.

Further, anything that increases a talkative member's salience would increase the likelihood of that member emerging as group leader. For example, consistently with the material on deviance and minority influence we discussed in Chapter 6, a small subgroup within the larger group is likely to gain the attention of the entire group if they are deviating from the group consensus. Thus, the behavior of a talkative member of that subgroup would be particularly salient to the rest of the group, and especially likely to emerge as a leader. In their review of literature about the relationship between amount of talk and leader emergence, Mullen et al. (1989) found research evidence for this effect.

Seating position. One of the reasons that the ends or head of a table are the "leadership seats" is that a person who sits at one of those positions becomes perceptually salient to the other members of the group. Perceptual salience can increase the odds that a member will become group leader for two reasons. First, they are more likely to be in the normal line of sight of other group members. The other group members are then more likely to direct their attention to them. Second, placing group members where they will receive the comments of other members is likely to lead them to talk frequently. As discussed, frequent talking will likely result in other group members judging them to be leaders.

Implicit Leadership Theories

As we have described, if an observer decides that a person is responsible for their behavior, the observer begins to form an impression of the person. This impression begins with a trait that describes the observed behavior, and then grows through the addition of other traits that the observer believes are associated with the first trait.

But where do these beliefs about the association among traits come from? They come from what researchers call implicit personality theories. An implicit personality theory is a person's beliefs about what traits and behaviors go together. For example, people's implicit personality theories usually associate "good" traits, such as intelligence and attractiveness, together. This is the reason why "halo effects" occur in impression formation. Similarly, implicit personality theories normally link "bad" traits, such as clumsiness and stupidity, with one another. This is the source of "horns effects" in impressions.

Research has shown that people have beliefs about the attributes that the "ideal leader" should possess. We can call these beliefs implicit leadership theories. Our own research (Pavitt & Sackaroff, 1990) has shown that implicit leadership theories tend to include traits such as "forceful" and "enthusiastic." These theories also include behaviors such as "states the group's procedure" and "encourages group member participation." Thus, these are included in the list of attributes that most people feel that the "ideal leader" should exhibit.

Group members use these implicit leadership theories when they form impressions of one another's leadership. For example, a group consists of Leon, Marvin, and Bram. Leon believes that an ideal leader who "encourages group member participation" is also "enthusiastic." He saw those two attributes as "going together" in an ideal leader. This judgment carries over into how Leon judges his fellow group members. For instance, if he were to think that Marvin exhibited a high level of "encouragement" behaviors, he would also judge Marvin as "enthusiastic." If Leon made a negative judgment about someone, he would connect similar negative attributes. If Leon judged that Bram exhibited a low level of encouragement behaviors, he would also think that Bram had low levels of the trait of "enthusiasm."

Leon is basing one judgment on another. He first observes Marvin and Bram and judges how much they encourage group members. As we have noted, Leon then believes that "encouragement" and "enthusiasm" go together in an "ideal leader." Therefore, he uses this belief and his previous judgment to decide how to assign the trait of "enthusiasm" to Marvin and Bram.

Further, group members use their implicit leadership theories as a basis for evaluating one another's leadership skills. If we form an impression of a group member that is similar to our preconceptions of the "ideal leader," then we would judge that group member to be a good leader. Analogously, if our impression is very different from our implicit leadership theory, then we would evaluate that member to be a poor leader.

We can use our example of Leon, Marvin, and Bram again to show this. Leon thought that Marvin had high levels of "encouragement" and "enthusiasm" attributes. Thus, Marvin's attributes were similar to those in Leon's vision of an "ideal leader." Hence, Leon evaluated Marvin as a good leader. In contrast, Leon thought that Bram had low levels of the attributes of "encouragement" and "enthusiasm." Thus, Bram was unlike Leon's vision of an "ideal leader." Accordingly, Leon, judged Bram to be a poor leader.

Research Showing Impression Formation Process

There has been some research exploring the impact of the impression formation process on group members' perceptions about their group's leadership. Our own research is an example.

Pavitt et al. study. This research has been described in two different reports (Pavitt & Sackaroff, 1990; Pavitt, Whitchurch, McClurg, & Petersen, 1995).

In the study, we presented the participants with a list of eight behaviors and eight traits that are part of most people's implicit theories of leadership. The participants then judged the extent to which the "ideal leader" would exhibit the behaviors and have the traits on the list. A month later, we put the participants into groups of three to five members. The groups then performed a decision-making task. After they made their decision, the members rated one another using the list of attributes they had used one month earlier. They also evaluated one another's leadership skill.

The results showed evidence that the participants' preconceptions about the "ideal leader" carried over into other areas. One area involved the impressions that the group members had of one another. The research looked at which traits and behavioral attributes the participants saw as "going together." There was a strong relationship between what they judged as "going together" in one another and what they saw as "going together" in an ideal leader. The correlation was about .7. In other words, if a participant believed that "stating the group's procedure" and being "organized" go together for the "ideal leader," they are likely to think the two attributes "go together" for other members of their group. This finding suggests that the members used their preconceptions as a basis for forming their impressions. Further, the study results showed that the participants' preconceptions about the "ideal leader" also influenced their evaluations of leadership skill. There was a strong relationship between how similarly they judged the "ideal leader" and one another and how good a leader they evaluated one another to be. The correlation was once again about .7. In other words, the more they thought a group member's attributes were similar to the attributes of the "ideal leader," the better a leader they judged that member to be. This result implies that the group members used their implicit leadership theory as a basis for evaluating one another's leadership skills.

It is important to note that these were groups that were just formed the study. The same study was also performed with groups that had existed for several weeks before the members made their decisions and judged one another. Researchers found these groups different from the shorter-lived ones. They looked again at what attributes members saw as "going together" in ideal leaders and which attributes they put together when they judged one another. Researchers found that the relationship between these two judgments was not as strong in these groups as it had been in the shorter-lived groups. In the longer-lived groups, the correlation measurement for these two judgments was only about .3.

Therefore, in newly-formed groups, members' judgments of one another are strongly influenced by their implicit leadership theories, leading to halo and horns effects in these judgments. In longer-lived groups, members come to know one another as individuals, and their preconceptions have less effect on how they judge one another. Instead, they gain knowledge about one another's unique personalities, and this knowledge starts to influence their judgments more than their preconceptions.

In other words, over time Leon might not rely so heavily on his vision of an "ideal leader" when judging Marvin and Bram. He might not use it as much as a basis for making judgments. For instance, as he gets to know Bram better, Leon may come to judge that Bram has a high level of the trait of "enthusiasm" even if he still believes that Bram is low in "encouragement" behaviors.

Judgmental Biases

The same processes that result in halo and horns effects also cause biases in judgments about leadership. As we have just discussed, halo and horns effects occur because people have ideas about which traits go together. People who work in groups similarly have ideas of which behaviors are associated with leadership. These ideas bias their ratings of specific leaders. The halo and horns effects can be very strong. Studies have even shown that people can rate imaginary "leaders" the same way they rate real leaders.

Rush, Thomas and Lord study. For example, recall our discussion of the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire (LBDQ) from the previous chapter. Rush, Thomas, and Lord (1977) asked a group of participants to imagine a department supervisor of a "large Midwestern corporation." They then asked them to judge this imaginary person and fill out the LBDQ. The results showed that their "imaginary" judgments closely approximated the types of ratings that people make when they fill out the LBDQ for real leaders. The general leadership styles of consideration and initiating structure were clearly distinguished in the "imaginary" ratings. This result occurred even though the participants had seen no real behaviors on which they could base their judgments.

This finding implies that imaginary judgments are based on our ideas of which attributes are associated with leadership. Therefore, judgments of actual leaders are similar to fictional ones. This could well mean that the way we judge a leader is, in great part, a result of how we think a leader "should" act. For example, we may see Jack do certain things that we think a leader should do. We fill out the LBDQ about him. The LBDQ asks questions regarding behaviors that we have not seen Jack perform. For instance, he has never encouraged teamwork. However, we believe that Jack would encourage teamwork if it were appropriate, so we fill out the LBDQ accordingly. Thus, the halo effect has made Jack into perhaps more of a leader than he really is.

Implications for Leader Emergence
All this research leads to the conclusion that we judge people as good or poor leaders to the extent to which their actions are and are not similar to our preconceptions of how leaders should lead. There are other implications of these studies as well. Earlier we described how behavioral salience helped to explain how some of the variables involved in leader emergence work the way they do. The same applies for implicit leadership theories.

Content of communication. At that time, we discussed how behavioral salience is an important reason why a group member's amount of talk is associated with their odds of emerging as a leader. However, content of talk is also associated with these odds, and the effect of implicit leadership theory is important here. Although a person who talks a lot will gain other group members' attention, if the content of that person's talk is irrelevant to the task, then the group members' impression of that person will not be similar to their beliefs about the "ideal leader," and they will judge the person as a poor leader. In contrast, a big talker whose discussion content is task-relevant should lead the other group members to form an impression close to the "ideal" and evaluate that member's leadership highly.

Seating position. We have noted that the ends or the head of the table are the "leadership seats" for group discussion. We have said that one of the reasons for this is that these positions are visually salient and thus provide for those sitting in them the attention of the rest of the group. Another reason is that people have developed expectations of where leaders are supposed to sit during group discussions. The ends or the "head" of a table are believed to be the "leadership seats" for a group discussion. These expectations work just like implicit theories in influencing people's judgments about group leadership. A study by Pellegrini (1971) shows this effect.

Pellegrini study. Pellegrini took five photographs of a group of five women sitting around a table. The members of the group rotated like a volleyball team, so that each woman sat in each of the five positions at the table for the different photographs. Next, Pellegrini showed research participants one of the five photographs and asked them to make judgments of each of the five women. If seating position had no effect on these judgments, they would be similar among the women sitting in each position. However, Pellegrini found that the women sitting at the head of the table was consistently rated highest in persuasiveness, dominance, and leadership.

General Conclusions: Perceptual Approach

It might seem that because the perceptual approach is not involved with recommendations for who should lead a group or how a leader should lead, that it has no practical implications for group discussion. This is false; the practical applications of the research using the perceptual approach are clear. Remember that if we see a person as a group leader, for whatever reason, we will treat him or her as a leader. Thus our perceptions about one another determine who emerges a leader in our group.

The process of impression formation leads to predictable biases as people judge one another. There are certain behaviors we associate with leadership. We expect a group leader to show these behaviors, regardless of whether they are correct in a particular situation.

In addition, we are biased toward perceiving a group member's leadership behavior as something that indicates a permanent leadership character in that person. Thus, if a member acts as a leader in one circumstance, we expect him or her to do so again in a different situation. If the leader does not act as we expect, according to our bias, we may unjustly become unhappy with his or her performance. It is important that we are conscious of the biases that are inherent in forming impressions of one another. We must constantly remind ourselves that these biases lead us to have expectations about our group leaders that nobody could realistically fulfill.


As you recall from the previous chapter, the trait approach to leadership began with the premise of the "Great Man Theory of Leadership." This theory claimed that there are certain people who appear to have special leadership skills that have seemed to set them apart from the average person. As discussed there, researchers' attempts to find traits that distinguished "born leaders" from everyone else were unsuccessful.

However, history is full of political and religious leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who seem to fit the "Great Man" idea. They have called forth extraordinary levels of dedication and effort from their followers. Back in Chapter 5 we described the work of Max Weber, a founding father of sociology, in defining the concept of "power." Weber also worked on understanding the process by which some leaders can inspire such devotion and commitment from followers. Weber proposed the idea that some leaders are perceived by their followers to possess a trait he called "charisma." The term "charisma" was originally defined as the ability to perform religious miracles. Weber used the term to refer to leaders who appear to have exceptional, almost superhuman abilities to perform difficult feats and succeed in seemingly impossible situations.

In the past few decades, some theorists have extended the idea of "charismatic" leadership to the context of organizations. There have been well-publicized examples of organizational leaders who seem to arouse the same type of response in their followers as Gandhi and King did in theirs. Examples include Steven Jobs of Apple Computers, Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, and Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics. Although there are differences among these and other cases, a few similarities are clear. In each case, the leader was able to inspire unusual effort and performance from their subordinates. Because of this inspiration, Jobs and Ash turned their ideas into corporations worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and Iacocca took a large corporation on the bring of insolvency and converted it into a large profit maker.

Many reports have been published listing the strategies and tactics of successful charismatic leaders. Sometimes these reports have implied that charismatic leadership is the key to organizational success. However, it should be clear from everything we have written about leadership that such sweeping generalizations are likely to be wrong. In many if not most cases, the success of charismatic leadership is short-lived. In fact, as we shall describe, the characteristics that can help make a person a charismatic leader often include the seeds of their eventual downfall. Lee Iacocca, for example, eventually became more concerned with improving his public image nationally than with the operations of Chrysler. As a result, Chrysler once again began struggling. Although Iacocca (and Chrysler) eventually righted themselves, there are many cases in which charismatic leaders have led once-successful corporations to ruin.

Having said this, research suggests that charismatic leadership can lead to organizational success. Bryman (1992) reported that measures of charismatic leadership tend to correlate with job performance at about .3. Although this is not a very high correlation, it must be considered that the success of charismatic leadership depends on the situation in which the leader and the members of the leader's group of subordinates are in.

In fact, a number of theorists have proposed very similar theories of charismatic leadership (see Bryman, 1992, for a good review). These theories are comparable to Fiedler's contingency theory of leadership in some ways. They propose that certain traits lead some people to adopt what could be called a "charismatic" style of leadership. There are certain situations in which this style leads to successful performance and some in which it backfires. However, this theory differs from Fiedler's in that communication is specifically described as part of the leadership process. Thus charismatic leadership theory fits the input-process-output model.

A Theory of Charismatic Leadership

Leader characteristics. According to most theorists, charismatic leaders have a number of traits in common. First, they are high in the "Nepo," or "need for power" characteristic we defined in Chapters 1 and 4. Second, they have great self-confidence. Third, they are unusually willing to take risks. Fourth, they have a strong conviction in the correctness of their beliefs.

Of course, having relevant traits is not enough. Advocates of the trait approach ignored the fact that leaders are most successful when performing tasks they are skilled in or knowledgeable about. Successful charismatic leaders generally have a great deal of experience in the organizational area in which they are managing. Lee Iacocca had many years of experience in the automobile industry before he took charge of Chrysler.

Finally, charismatic leaders have developed a "vision" of what their group or organization should stand for. This vision is often abstract, but must be simple enough for subordinates to understand. For example, Steven Jobs had a quest to improve education through making computers available to the average person. Mary Kay Ash wanted to help women learn to become independent and empower themselves.

Thus, charismatic leaders have particular traits, relevant experience, and a vision.

Leader style. Charismatic leaders perform a number of characteristic behaviors that we can call a "charismatic" style of leadership. First, they are able to successfully communicate the content of their vision and confidence in their subordinates' ability to attain it. They do this through both verbally and nonverbally. Verbally, charismatic leaders tend to use a number of different strategies when addressing subordinates. Shamir, House, and Arthur (1993) have listed some of the strategies.

1. They often refer to shared values and moral justifications. As discussed, Jobs described Apple's goal as bringing computers to schools and the average person. He also referred to Apple as if it were David taking on IBM as an evil Goliath. Thus the competition between the two multimillion dollar corporations was represented as a fight between good and evil.

2. They tend to refer to distant goals rather than near ones. For example, Jobs was more likely to discuss what Apple Computer could eventually do rather than what would occur tomorrow.

3. They tend to emphasize the collective identity of the subordinates. The needs of the corporation are always more important than the desires of its individual members for the charismatic leader.

4. They tend to express high expectations for the subordinates. Their task is described as very difficult, and success as requiring great effort.

5. They tend to show great confidence in the ability of their subordinates. No matter how hard the task as they have described, the subordinates have the "right stuff" to succeed.

Second, charismatic leaders deliver this content in an animated nonverbal style. They have great variety and dynamism in their voice, and use gestures, movements and eye gaze actively when talking.

In addition, the charismatic leader must "live" their vision. They must seem to practice exactly what they preach. If a charismatic leader expects their subordinates to put in sixty hour weeks, the leader should put in seventy. If the charismatic leader wants subordinates to look upon the organization as their family, they must take on the role of maintenance leader. If a charismatic leader wants the subordinates to trust their own abilities and judgments, the leader must trust the decisions and actions that the subordinates take.

Situational factors. This style of communicating and behaving appears to be successful only in the right situations. First, the circumstance should be particularly stressful or uncertain. This would occur either in a newly-formed organization or in an older organization that is having problems that threaten its survival. Second, the subordinates need to be creative and dedicated. What can happen is that subordinates of this type who have become apathetic under other leadership styles are inspired when a charismatic leader takes over. Third, the leader must have the power to actually follow through on their vision. For example, if a middle-level manager has certain goals that those higher up in the organization do not value, then the manager will not be able to see their ideas through.

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