How to Pick Great Team Leaders

Determining who exerts influence and commands respect is key to creating great teams.

How to Pick Great Team Leaders

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Few things will doom a project faster than poor leadership. Without a respected captain at the helm, teams can easily be riven by friction over decision-making authority, assignment of tasks and responsibilities, perceptions of who is or isn’t pulling their weight and who gets credit for success — or blamed for failure.

But picking great team leaders can be a somewhat arbitrary and nebulous process — more art than science. Sure, managers can use metrics like seniority, experience and levels of technical expertise as criteria, but none of those guarantee how effectively people work together as a team.

Worse yet, there’s no tried-and-true litmus test or key personality traits that can help managers predict how people will collaborate and work together.

So how are managers supposed to divine who’s a great leader and who’s not? New research shows there actually is a key trait managers can home in on — something researchers call status intelligence.

“Status intelligence is the ability to look at social interactions and perceive them accurately,” says Gavin Kilduff, an associate professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business. He participated in a study led by Siyu Yu, an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

“More specifically, it focuses on the extent to which people can detect status hierarchy in groups — how much influence, esteem and respect each individual on a team commands,” he explains.

This includes observing positives, such as which employees team members look to for approval or listen to the most, and negatives, like which employees suggest ideas that are consistently passed over or who constantly interrupt colleagues, Kilduff says.


Measuring Status

To determine status intelligence, Kilduff and his colleagues developed a 10-minute test. The first step involved bringing in groups of four people at a time to a lab and directing them to work on a business project. The groups were filmed while they worked and were not told how to act, so their behaviors were natural and organic, replete with interruptions and ego clashes.

At the end of each session, the team members were asked to grade their colleagues on things like how much respect and admiration they garnered from other team members and who exerted the most influence on processes.

Researchers then edited down the 45-minute videos into nine 1- to 2-minute long clips and showed them to a new set of workers. They each were asked to rate the meeting participants in the same way the actual participants graded each other, with an eye toward who they thought had the most status and influence, Kilduff says.

Researchers then compared the test-takers’ answers to the actual test participants’ answers. Those whose ratings best matched the participants’ ratings probably will work well with others, Kilduff says.

“People who can accurately determine the status hierarchy of those teams are more likely to be good team players,” he explains. “The better they can interpret what’s going on in those groups in terms of status hierarchies, the better they’ll be at working in groups.”


Finding Great Team Players

The test is not commercially available, but it might be in the future.

“We’d like to help make the workplace function a little more smoothly as a result of our research,” Kilduff says.

But absent such a test, there are still ways for managers to determine which employees will play well with each other. For example, they could perform a survey to determine which employees are most respected and admired by their co-workers, then distribute that information as a guide for colleagues. This information could even be provided to new employees so they know which co-workers might be the best ones to network or mentor with and ask for advice, Kilduff says.

“If you want to implement an idea, you want to pitch it to the people with enough say and influence to get it done,” Kilduff says.


Provide Hierarchy Context

It also helps to have open and explicit conversations that point out everyone’s relative strengths and areas of expertise, as well as acknowledge that some individuals will exert more influence over certain decisions than others. This can help teams reduce potential for status conflict because everyone knows where they stand.

“It can be very beneficial to have an open conversation about a task at hand and discuss what each team member brings to the table in terms of task-relevant expertise,” Kilduff says. “This can clarify which employees could be influential in what domains and reduce disagreements about decision-making. If you don’t provide this kind of context, it’s easier for someone who speaks loudly and with great authority — but really isn’t a good team player — to become a leader.”

Kilduff concedes this can be a tough conversation to have with employees. But if it’s handled carefully, with a focus on backgrounds and work experience, it can be successful.

Wouldn’t it just be better and easier to let status hierarchies emerge organically? Not necessarily, Kilduff says, pointing out that the absence of any knowledge about status just creates more potential for status conflict.


Status Awareness Is Good

Of course, this approach runs counter to many current workplace dynamics where status is downplayed, if not outright eliminated through elimination of titles, for example. Kilduff points out that this is a recipe for poor team performance because it decreases everyone’s status intelligence.

“If organizations try to ignore status and say it’s bad and that no one should have it, it creates more confusion than good,” he explains, noting that it’s difficult for employees to pretend that an employee with decades of experience is on the same plane as a new employee.

Looking ahead, Kilduff is excited about the prospects of bringing the status intelligence test to market.

“Our research has identified a whole new human ability,” he says. “Before this, there really wasn’t any examination of how well people work in groups or how facile they are in group interactions. Once we get this test out there and coach people about how to use it, we think it could be a powerful tool for improving workplace interactions and productivity.”


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