Follow the Leader

Say the word leader and the first thing that comes to mind for most people is an extrovert in extremis—the kind of person who galvanizes followers with unbridled charisma. But a new study from Wharton management professor Adam Grant and two colleagues suggests that the most effective leaders may not always be the most assertive ones. 

Drawing on field data from pizza-delivery stores, and also staging a laboratory experiment in which groups of college students were tasked with folding as many T-shirts as possible under varying leadership styles, the researchers found that introverted leaders can be just as effective as extroverted ones—depending on what sorts of people they are managing.

When employees were proactive—introducing new ideas or actively seeking out feedback—groups led by introverted leaders earned higher profits (or achieved higher rates of productivity) than those led by extroverts. But for groups of employees who were not proactive, the reverse was true.

“Because extroverted leaders like to be the center of attention,” Grant theorizes, “they tend to be threatened by employee proactivity.” This can lead to personality conflicts, power struggles, and even open hostility between a manager and his employees. “Introverted leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to listen carefully to suggestions and support employees’ efforts to be proactive.”

Significantly, the study found that both successful pairings—extroverts with passive employees and introverts with proactive ones—produced more or less equivalent results in terms of productivity. “Our research provides insight into when each style is effective,” Grants says, “as opposed to trying to test which one is better, which I think is the wrong question.” 

—Ty Russell C’11

SpongeBob SugarPusher

There’s good news and bad news in the kingdom of Cap’n Crunch—for small children and their parents, that is. First the good news. In an experiment conducted by researchers in the Annenberg School for Communication, kindergarten-aged kids liked the taste of an unfamiliar breakfast cereal more when it was called “Healthy Bits” than when it was called “Sugar Bits.” So, score one for public-health campaigns encouraging nutritious food choices.

But there’s a simple way to get them to abandon that preference: slap an image of a “licensed spokescharacter” on the front of the box. Doctoral candidates Matthew LaPierre and Sarah Vaala, along with associate professor Deborah Linebarger, confirmed what the Kelloggs of the world have known for some time by staging a taste test involving a single cereal presented in a variety of packaging configurations. 

The cereal in question contained six grams of sugar per serving, putting it in the middle ground between Whole Grain Cheerios (one gram) and SpongeBob SquarePants cereal (13 grams). When they presented it as “Healthy Bits,” their four- to six-year-old subjects rated its taste highly regardless of what the box looked like. 

But that changed when they called it “Sugar Bits.” Participants who got their “Sugar Bits” from a box emblazoned with pictures of Mumble and Gloria (two well-known cartoon penguins from the movie Happy Feet that don’t appear on any actual cereal packaging) rated its taste significantly higher than participants who got it from a spokescharacter-bereft box—just as high, indeed, as the “Healthy Bits.”

“It is promising that messages encouraging healthier eating habits seem to resonate with young children,” the researchers noted, “and disconcerting that the mere presence of a character on food packaging seems to override this judgment.” 


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