What happens if you select leaders at random?

If leaders were chosen randomly, would our productivity increase?

A paper by S. Alexander Haslam, called “Inspecting the emperor's clothes: evidence that random selection of leaders can enhance group performance” argues that random leaders are more effective. Interestingly, in some follow up work, the authors also found that groups rated random leaders as less effective even though their performance was better.

The two key studies in the paper entailed assigning student groups to play various versions of the “survival exercise” (see some of the variations here), where the group imagines that they have experienced some kind of disaster and are stranded (a plane crash, a broken car in the desert, and a nuclear war were used in these studies). The group's task is to rank order the importance of a dozen or so items that might help them survive the ordeal (e.g., a compass, map, loaded pistol, newspapers, cigarette lighter). The performance of the group is determined by comparing their rank-ordering to those produced by experts. This is, of course, just a simulation of reality. But I've participated and led these exercises and they are quite engaging — I suspect many of you have had similar experiences.

Overall, the researchers compared the performance of these student groups under four conditions:

1. A leader selected via a formal selection process (self-ratings by group members)
2. A leader selected by an informal process (group members had a discussion and picked a leader)
3. A leader who was randomly selected.
4. No leader selected.

The consistent finding was that groups with RANDOMLY selected members performed significantly better than groups in all other conditions, and there weren't significant differences found between the other conditions. The researchers also did some follow-up surveys, and revealed some mildly interesting findings; notably, groups with randomly selected leaders rated their leaders as LESS effective even though their performance was BETTER.


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