Published January 24, 2019

Is there a single particular characteristic that makes some people want to become managers and others not? It actually seems that way, a new study reveals…

As a manager and leader, you are expected to be able to make decisions. Many decisions also involve a certain degree of uncertainty. In most cases you cannot know for certain in advance if the result is going to be successful, regardless of how thoroughly you have prepared.

A general view is that leaders more easily cope with this uncertainty and therefore are more prone to risk-taking than others. “Fortune favours the bold” or “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”, as the sayings go…

New research from the University of Zürich, Switzerland, now questions this view. The results of the study were published a few months ago in the scientific journal Science and very simplified, the study was conducted as follows:

The scientists first measured the leadership abilities of the participants, through some established tests, but also by observing how they behaved in real life, i e in the work place.

The subjects were then split into groups, where each and everyone would make decisions about various issues. Some decisions had a higher risk factor (and therefore higher gain), while other decisions were “safer”, but therefore also offered only a smaller gain.

Sometimes the decision would only affect the individual subject and sometimes the whole group. When the decisions affected the whole group, the participants also had the option to renounce the decision-making power and hand over to the rest of the group to make the decision.

The researchers were able to conclude, in brief, that:

• People with a lower leadership score more often chose to renounce the decision-making when the decisions would affect the whole group, compared to when the decision would affect only themselves.

• People with a higher leadership score would more often choose to make the decisions themselves, regardless of whether this would affect only themselves or the whole group.

• The scientists also looked at factors like control needs and risk aversion, but found no connection in these regards between the subjects’ willingness to make decisions and to lead and be a manager.

So, many of the decisions we make are linked to a certain level of uncertainty. If the decision will also affect others, this uncertainty is increased for most of us and we then feel a little (or very) uncomfortable. Scientists call this phenomenon responsibility aversion and it is this which determines whether you are willing to take on a leadership role or not.

What distinguishes leaders from non-leaders is therefore not the actual uncertainty about the decision itself. Instead the difference lies in whether the decision will affect only “myself” or “the whole group”. If the uncertainty discrepancy between decisions affecting only ”myself” and those affecting “the whole group” is very small, or non-existent, there is also a stronger tendency to make those decisions that will affect others too.

Whether this is good or bad is perhaps a topic for debate. On the one hand, the ability to make (quick) decisions is an advantage if you are a manager – it is in the nature of the beast, so to speak. On the other hand, a certain uncertainty, or should we perhaps call it humility, can also be a good thing and increases the opportunities to seek additional, relevant facts before an important decision is made.

Please note that the study referred to above does not say anything about the quality of the decisions. There is also research showing that the less you know, the easier it is to make a decision. Or, in the words of Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, economist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”:

”Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.”

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