Those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of initially leaderless groups, according to new research published in The Leadership Quarterly. This effect, known as the “babble hypothesis” of leadership, appears to occur regardless of the intelligence or personality traits of group members.
“It’s something of a truism to say that humans are intensely social, and much that is economically and politically important is done in groups, yet it seems relatively easy to demonstrate inefficiencies of all kinds associated with group work,” said lead author Neil G. MacLaren, a research fellow at the Bernard M. and Ruth R. Bass Center for Leadership Studies.
“This conflict seems surprising, and I think that understanding it better may lead to improvements in how we put work groups together, how we organize them hierarchically (or not), and how we assess and train groups and the individuals in them. It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion.”
“We usually think of leadership as being very content driven — someone says important things, so we follow them — yet here was pretty consistent evidence that people seemed to attribute leadership to people who ‘babbled,’ or just spoke a lot. Trying to understand this relationship between speaking time and attributions of leadership seemed like an important step in understanding group dynamics more generally,” MacLaren explained.
The researchers recorded 33 groups of 4-10 college students as they worked together during a military- or business-themed computer simulation. The military-themed simulation was a game called BCT Commander, while the business-themed simulation was a game called CleanStart.
The participants were given 10 minutes to plan how they would complete their task and 60 minutes to attempt their task as a group. One participant in each group was randomly assigned as the “operator,” who was responsible for manipulating the game’s user interface.
Once after the planning phase of the simulation and once after the gameplay phase, the participants were asked to nominate one to five individuals who they believed had emerged as leaders.
MacLaren and his colleagues found that students who spent more time speaking were more likely to be nominated as leaders. This was true even after accounting for operator status, previous gameplay knowledge, and psychological variables such as personality traits and cognitive ability.
“I think one take away is the importance of speaking up in group settings. For example, if you are in a leadership position the evidence suggests you should play an active role in the conversation. Taking this finding to extremes is unhelpful because skewed amounts of speaking time are associated with poorer group performance outcomes (see the work from Anita Woolley’s group on what they call collective intelligence), but the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders,” MacLaren told PsyPost.
The groups in the study contained a mix of both male and female students. The researchers found that gender had a substantial impact on leadership emergence.
“There is another take away that is an important corollary we address in the paper: the gender bias in leadership attributions. In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man. The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes,” MacLaren explained.
“This bias does not appear to be strongly associated with any observable indicators of participation quality, just with gender. Although the information about leadership attributions we gather in the lab can seem somewhat contrived, it’s important to remember that many of us provide attributions of others regularly in the form of performance evaluations at work or in hiring decisions. To me, evidence like that presented in our paper should motivate us to find better, more objective ways to determine performance quality and potential.”
The 256 participants included in the study were cognitively and demographically diverse, and included both undergraduate and graduate students. But as with all research, the study includes some caveats.
“First, in our study we follow the literature in using fellow group member attributions of leadership as the gold standard for identifying leadership status within the group. It turns out that few studies have attempted to look at these kinds of variable relationships in groups where the expected status relationships are ‘known’ through other means, such as formal position within an organization,” MacLaren said.
“Studies that have attempted this have more inconsistent findings than the laboratory-based literature. I think a lot of work still needs to be done to understand why this discrepancy exists.”
“Second, and related to the first caveat, speaking time is statistically ‘powerful’ in that it seems to relate to many important behavioral variables, eclipsing their effects in many studies. But is it the duration of speaking itself that’s important, or is it important because it’s correlated with other, more important behaviors?” MacLaren continued.
“We are working on a study right now that looks at conversational interruptions in this light, but there are many other potential behaviors (such as posture or body language) or features of speech (such as change in the pitch of an individual’s voice) that may be important. Alternately, perhaps we haven’t determined the best way to quantify the semantic content of speech in an appropriate way (i.e., a way that is minimally influenced by observer bias).”
The study, “Testing the babble hypothesis: Speaking time predicts leader emergence in small groups“, was authored by Neil G. MacLarena, Francis J. Yammarino, Shelley D. Dionne, Hiroki Sayama, Michael D. Mumford, Shane Connelly, Robert W. Martin, Tyler J. Mulhearn, E. Michelle Todd, Ankita Kulkarni, Yiding Cao, and Gregory A. Ruark.