Ryne Sherman on the Nature of Human Nature - Ideas for Leaders
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Ryne Sherman on the Nature of Human Nature

Key Concept

Ryne Sherman is Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessment Systems. He is also a professor of psychology but started out studying history – which may explain his interest in how early human beings organised themselves and how we have become more hierarchical and structured as societies ever since the advent of agriculture – and the impact and effect that has on modern organisations. In this conversation Ryne explores the impact of the Neolithic Revolution, and connects that to the modern-day requirement for getting to the top of organisations as being a political skill. He also shares his thinking around the growing modern mid-management issue of Absentee Leaders, .

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Full Conversation Recording



Roddy Millar  00:09

Hello, and welcome to this conversation from Ideas for Leaders, I am Roddy Millar. And I’m really pleased to have with us today Ryne Sherman. Ryne is Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessment Systems.  Many of you will already be very familiar with Hogan Assessments, which are well known across the HR and learning and development communities. And we will explore briefly with Ryan, what the science officer does within that, but prior to that, and I believe currently too Ryne is Professor of Psychology and interestingly, on looking at his CV, Ryne, you studied psychology and history, which isn’t necessarily always an obvious coupling right at the beginning of your academic or further education career as an undergraduate. But I think that also gives us some pointers to why some of the themes that we’re going to discuss in today’s conversation might come together. But Ryan, welcome to Ideas for Leaders.

Ryne Sherman  01:19

Well, yeah, thanks for having me here. Roddy. Yeah, I’m really excited to chat with you about some of these things today.

Roddy Millar  01:25

I mean,  this Chief Science Officer role, do you want to just very quickly give us a bit of a background as to what that means and what you do, and perhaps how you came to be there. And then we can dig into some of the research that you’ve been doing?

Ryne Sherman  01:43

Sure, yeah. So as the Chief Science Officer at Hogan, I run our Data Science Division. This is about a dozen people who have PhDs or master’s degrees in IO-psychology, quantitative psychology, or personality psychology. And our group really is the core research group of our organization. So as some folks may listening may know, Hogan is a sort of a is a research organization.  At its core, all of our assessments have a scientific foundation to them. And my group is in charge of maintaining the scientific foundation of those assessments, updating those assessments, updating our norms, which is something I’m really proud of, we have norms in 50 something countries. We have what I think of is the best and most representative global norm of the working population in the entire world.  We also do custom solutions. So when clients come to us and have particular jobs, or particular roles, they need help filling or even particular leadership kinds of questions about developing leaders in a certain way, or, or using their leadership model in their own organization, we build custom solutions around those to help them get that personality science that we know and inject that into their organization.

Roddy Millar  03:01

And as everything’s gone digital these days, and presumably, your assessments have been digital for a long time now. But you must have an enormous flow of data coming in to substantiate and inform the, the the frameworks and assessments that you have.

Ryne Sherman  03:17

Well, you know, I haven’t been here since the beginning of the company, but I can guarantee you that it’s a lot easier now than it was in the old days, so to speak. You know, yeah, we used to have the paper pencil assessments, we would send the assessments out in boxes, and have to wait for them to come back in and run them through a Scantron machine and then score them and send back out the reports. Those days are long gone. Obviously, that’s all done over the web now. But it also has increased the amount of data that we get. So we get more than a million assessments a year, again, from all over the globe. And so that’s what really helps us, you know, build the things that I mentioned earlier, like the global norm that we have, you know, and that norm less than that there’s not a single language in that norm that contains more than 3% of a single language. So if you took us English as a language, only 3% of the people in that norm, took our assessments in US English. So it really is this nice, representative sample of the globe.

Roddy Millar  04:16

I mean, I wasn’t meaning to explore that. But I’ve got to chase that down a little bit. And is there a significant variation? Or do you think in the sort of core personality, human personality traits, And I know, we’re gonna come on to them very soon. But is there a sort of standardized similarity across the global or does culture change it and warp it from one, one corner of the world to the next?

Ryne Sherman  04:45

Yeah, so there’s a couple of ways to think about that question. One way is to think, do do people who take the assessments in a different language or from a different country or different culture actually get different scores on the assessments. And the second way to think about it is do the assessments relate to outcomes, or even to each other, in different ways. And for that first question, it’s not very much there are small cultural differences, but that they tend to not have much of an impact. The probably the biggest cultural difference we’ve noticed is actually with managers in Japan for whatever reason. And one of our assessments, we measure something called ambition. And for whatever reason, the managers in Japan tend to score a little bit lower on that we think it has to do with sort of a self-effacing kind of culture that it’s this, but what’s really interesting is that that’s not true in Korea, it’s not true in China. So it’s not like an Asian, or even a Western Eastern thing. It’s really just localized to Japan. So that’s the only case where we really see much of a mean difference.  But then the second question is, are our assessments related to different outcomes in different ways?  And the answer seems to be no, even in even that example, with Japan, ambition still predicts performance in leadership roles, just as well as it does in any other country. So and also, the structure of our assessments are the same in pretty much every country around the world. And so that that sort of tells you, I think, big picture, what that really tells you is that personality is this universal thing. It’s not, oh, there’s personality in western countries, there’s personality, and it’s different. It really is this this global universal.

Roddy Millar  06:27

And I think that’s really, really heartening, I mean, for ourselves at Ideas for Leaders in the red thread through everything we do is trying to make organizations more human or explore that concept. And if there is that universality that then that obviously makes it a more compelling, but also hopefully simpler to do if we’re all motivated and stimulated and energized by the same kinds of effects and drivers and emotion. Which I think brings us very nicely to this theme around personality theory and the nature of human nature, which is, you know, was a paper that you put together. And I was really attracted to it because I’ve seen that the through lots of different research this idea around her in the late 19th century into the 20th century through industrialization, we’ve at work, we’ve we’re very much sort of turned humans into human resources, literally in an in a negative sense in terms that we just see them as units of work rather than humans anymore. And that has become quite restrictive in in a knowledge economy in the 21st century. But I think what you found is that that and that goes back, you think that goes back earlier? that tell us a bit about about that, that sort of that pathway that you’ve identified?

Ryne Sherman  08:02

Right? So I mean, the real key here is, you know, we’re drawing on research from, you know, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, things like that. So I wish I could say, Boy, this was all original research to me, but it’s, it goes real, a lot deeper than that. But essentially, what we know is that early humans are our ancestors lived in small nomadic groups, and maybe 100 to 200 people. And, you know, that was mostly foraging and hunting. And people worked maybe four to six hours a day in most of the day was sort of free to, you know, to socialize, to engage, to sort of enjoy life.  And then, you know, something really important happened. And this is referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. But it’s essentially the advent of agriculture, or the advent of stable crops where  okay, we can stay in one place. So rather than following the herds, or rather than going to where there are new things to forage, the groups group stayed in one spot. And what’s really important, there’s a few important things about that one of the important things about that is that that by staying in one spot, it allows individuals to accumulate wealth. So when you’re traveling around, you really can’t take a lot of wealth with you. And in fact, in those nomadic groups, we know that a lot of the decision-making was done by consensus, right there was a leader, but it was mostly done via You know, this is what the group thinks is best, we think this is a good a good choice for us to go do.  And if the leader got too far out of line, the group had a way of stopping that, right. But once humans are settled once they’re in one spot, and certain individuals, leaders perhaps can accumulate lots of wealth now suddenly, the group doesn’t really have much of an impact can’t have much of an influence on what that leader decides to do. The leader gets to decide what to do and in fact, We think this is really the beginning of sort of modern organizations, right, where you have this hierarchy where somebody is at the top, who has lots of power. And then there’s another group, sort of a middle management group today. But in those days, it would be things like the priests, and the other sort of nobles. And then and then there’s a lower a group who does most of the labor who does most of the work.  And that went on for several 1000 years until we hit the Industrial Revolution. But even still, you see remnants of this structure, even in today’s corporate kind of management, where the people that are at the top, get the highest rewards have the most privileges, and the people at the bottom are usually doing the brunt of the of the daily work. And there’s some really fascinating stuff. And I don’t know how deep we want to get into it. But I mean, really interesting things that you can find out like, one of the things that was fascinating for me was city walls, right. So city walls were invented around the the Neolithic Revolution when cities when people started staying there. And I always thought, well, city walls were to keep invaders out, right? Were to keep people from attacking and taking the wealth that had been accumulated. But actually turns out that they think the original city walls were actually built to keep people in from escaping, right, they needed the laborers to work in the fields.

Roddy Millar  11:24

Yeah, yeah. But in there just switches your perspective around around around all of this. Because I mean, I think one of the things that we are searching for now in the 21st century is a great deal more agency. And I think in a way that has become very clear in the in the last 12 months, when, you know, everyone’s been working from home, or the vast number of us have suddenly been working from home, which was always resisted before, because the bosses didn’t necessarily trust other people to work out of sight. And therefore out of mind, but in fact, that agency, that, that that ability to get on and get and get the job done on your own, has been there all along and has been demonstrated, and in fact, has created lots of new energy, I think, in many people. So we take that right back to the the sort of nomadic hunter gatherer people, they were all free agents, really. There may have been coordinated it was leadership by consensus, then, and it wasn’t a what you’re saying is it wasn’t until they became sort of fixed settled, that that hierarchy was imposed, and an a gradual loss of agency happened. Do you recognize that description?

Ryne Sherman  12:54

Yeah, for sure. I mean, the, you know, one of the things that’s really interesting about this is that in sort of Western culture, you sort of get this idea, you learn and do Western history classes that the Greeks discovered democracy, but based on, you know, our review of anthropology and that kind of thing, what you really find out is all they did was rediscover what was sort of natural state for humans for a really long time was that, you know, everybody had to get along, and the group had to decide what to do together. Otherwise, the group risk failure, right? So one of the things that, that I think is really interesting about humans is compared to other species, is we’re I like to refer to us as squishy, right? We’re rather squishy species, right? We’re not very fast, compared to say, you know, a bobcat or anything like that, we were not very strong compared to like a gorilla. We don’t, don’t have a particularly strong bite, you know, compared or we don’t have really sharp teeth, right. So I mean, the single human on its own, has basically no chance of survival, compared to to many, like, you know, tigers, you know, they live basically all on their own all the time.  But, but there are a few things that that do make us unique. And one is our ability to coordinate is that when we get into a group, we can coordinate our behavior and coordinate our actions really well. So what we learned what clearly what humans learned through evolution was that being part of a group and coordinating as part of that group is really important. And that’s what those early tribes were all about. It was all about coordinating the group, and in some respects, and I know we’re gonna talk about leadership a little later on, that that’s really what leadership is about the ability to coordinate your group. And you know, in these, gosh, I mean, there’s all kinds of old things throughout history, we can find these these warlords, right? So and, and basically since the Neolithic Revolution, it’s just been one warlord after another right? That’s pretty much has been the chart, but that that, you know, essentially, they eventually sort of learned that well, you know, you’ve got to feed your peasants at least because every now and then you have to go to war, right? So it’s, it’s a, it’s, it’s rather abusive relationship would be the way I would describe it.

Roddy Millar  15:14

And you you make this point that leadership is critical when it comes to competition between groups. And that’s what you’re referencing there. But it all fits into Darwinism really, doesn’t it the the survival of, of the most adaptable, but also the most, the most collaborative. Because it’s that it’s that sense of collaboration. I think what amazes me is the how much time humans, as homo sapiens, or even predecessors to homo sapiens, the Neanderthal, and whatever the other ones that were Homo Erectus and people. But I mean, we’re talking hundreds of 1000s or 1000s of millennia, anyway. And agriculture has only been around, it only came in relatively recently. So the vast period of time while we’ve been evolving as human beings, we were like that we were nomadic hunter gatherers. And it’s only in a relatively short period of time that agriculture came in. And then obviously, just a tiny period of that, or percentage of that, but that we’ve been industrialized, and now digitalised.

Ryne Sherman  16:36

Well, and what it speaks to, Roddy, I think, is that there’s this this dynamic that goes on for every individual and within every group, and that you have to, as I just mentioned, you have to be part of the group, if you want to survive, right, if you’re out on your own, you’re just out of the gene pool, right? So everybody’s sort of learned that I need to belong to the group. In fact, there’s all kinds of research now by psychologists showing that rejection, or being left out of the group, or being ostracized is really actually painful, right then. So I know some research that they do on ostracism, where they have people throw a ball around, and now they do it virtually. So they do it online, right, you throw a ball, throw, and then eventually the other two players stop throwing the ball to you. And you’re just sitting there and they’re throwing the ball back and forth. And you’re and and the people who are in this even this little tiny thing, feel so excluded, and they’ve done brain scans, that the the part of the brain that is active, the most active, when that happens is the same part of the brain that’s active if somebody punched you in the arm, right. So it actually is painful to be ostracized. And so we’ve learned this, this is deep-rooted in our evolution is that being left out of the group is really painful, because largely the risk of death, at least to our ancestors. And so that’s part one is that we really need to belong to a group.  But Part two is even within that group, there’s these dynamics, right? There’s these dynamics about who’s in charge, who has authority who has power. And even in those nomadic tribes, there was a sort of a status hierarchy, it wasn’t as steep as we might see today. And the rewards obviously weren’t as great for the people at the top. But even there, there, there were certain and you see this, you know, you know, we see this in chimpanzees, for example, their status hierarchies among them as well. And so it’s a really interesting pair of motives that all humans have, where we have to be motivated to get along with our group. But at the same time, within that group, we’re trying to get ahead, we’re trying to move up that status, our hierarchy, and there’s always a risk every time we take a step up, that we might offend somebody, and we might get rejected from the group.

Roddy Millar  18:43

It’s, I mean, I’m fascinated because a couple of years ago, I spent a week 10 days with the Maasai tribesmen in, in Kenya and got an insight. And that was all but an insight into how they, at the Maasai, work as a as a social group. And, and I think there’s a huge amount we can learn from that. The the core that… there’s a very reduced, almost negligible sense of self in it, you gain credibility and status by doing things for the group. And that’s imbued in you from from a very early age. And I think that’s, that’s a pretty, pretty standard norm across indigenous peoples. But one of the, as you’re saying, one of the huge sanctions there is to be ostracized. So if you if you have a disagreement, then they call together the group. And it can happen on a number of levels, how big the group is, depending on what the disagreement is, but you can and the group will discuss it and there will be elders who will guide the discussion and then there’s a consensus decision made. And you have to fall in with that. And if you don’t fall in that, as you say you’re ostracized, and that, that is, you know, pretty close to a death sentence, really. As you said, if you’re out there on your own, you’re, you know, you’re, you’re not going to survive for long. Now, in modern day Kenya, that that’s less of a death sentence than it would have been 100 years ago. But that’s how the culture has evolved, right?

Ryne Sherman  20:28

But the key is that we still have those brains, right? So we still have the brains of the people from, you know, hundreds of 1000s of years ago, where ostracism was really painful. And so for us, it still has that same kind of pain even though Okay, maybe if I’m left alone, you know, I won’t really die, it still has that level of pain.

Roddy Millar  20:50

But the flip side, perhaps is that , we look at those kind of groups. And because of that imperative to be consensual to fit in with the group, you don’t have many Mavericks, you don’t have people who are coming up with new with alternative ideas, it tends to be very traditional. You know, if we look at the last 100, 150 years, the way we’ve we’ve, we’ve bounded forwards is by by having people come in with, you know, completely novel ideas. And they often were Maverick saying, you look at the likes of Tesla and people like that. And indeed, the modern day Tesla, Elon Musk, so it it’s difficult, there is no perfect solution. But it’s trying to find that balance, perhaps,

Ryne Sherman  21:47

You know, that reminds Roddy, there’s some really interesting research, looking at entrepreneurs, and we’ve done some of this ourselves, but looking at entrepreneurs, and also Well, one of the things that we know is that the actually the personality profile, the entrepreneur, looks really similar to the personality profile of that criminal. And, and I thought, wow, Isn’t that fascinating? Then I find out there was some economists who’d written some theory paper, maybe three or four decades ago, basically saying, you know, entrepreneurship is about the degree to which society lets you commit crimes; like that was his whole theory was that in societies where they have really strict laws about innovation, you have a lot of criminals and not any entrepreneurs. But when you have loose laws about innovation, then you get lots of entrepreneurs and fewer criminals, which I think is really fascinating.

Roddy Millar  22:40

It’s an outlet for criminals as well, which way it is. But yeah, the show your innovative streak. Does that. So I mean, where does that take us? Then? You know, we, if that human nature is embedded in our genes, because of millennia of conditioning around that. And we know that we’re social animals. And we can see that now. And I think, you know, that’s clearer today and April 2021, than it probably would have been a year ago. You know, we know what we’ve missed in terms of socializing. And we know what we miss in terms of not being in the office. What does that tell us about what we need in an effective leader today?

Ryne Sherman  23:27

Yeah, well, so that’s where there’s really important implications of the Neolithic Revolution. So leadership prior to the Neolithic Revolution was really again, done by consensus. The group our as you mentioned, with the Maasai tribe, it might be some elders and people who had accumulated wisdom that the folks that the rest of the group trusted right to be in charge, right? To make decisions that would benefit everyone, right, that’s who would be in charge of the group? Well, once we hit the Neolithic Revolution, you know, individuals might be put in charge or get themselves put in charge based on wanting to win that status-competition, wanting to have more wealth, more power, accumulate more for themselves out of selfish interests. And that’s exactly what we see. today. In fact, this is what is greatly impacted the way we understand and study leaders, we tend to think of leaders. And this isn’t just true for everyday people. This is also true for academics, doing research on leadership, we tend to think of leaders as the people who are at the top the people who are in charge. And there’s a lot of problems with that, as we talked about it with the Neolithic Revolution, that would be whoever could accumulate the most well, whoever could pay the army, whoever had the most power, whoever got blessed by the Pope or whatever it was right that made them the leader.  Well, in today’s world, it’s who in a modern organization, right? So a lot of this changed with the Industrial Revolution, and it became less about the size of the army, but more about your political capital. And so who gets to the top of IBM today? Who gets to the top of Disney? Who gets the top of the biggest corporations, in the world today? Well, well, let’s think about what those corporations are, those corporations are all mostly male dominated white organizations, right, particularly at the top. And who’s really good at that, who’s really good at getting that? Well, politicians, right, people who are good at playing politics. And we’ve done some research basically showing that in some respects, there’s no real psychological similarities between top CEOs, people who are in CEO roles, other than their skill, their political skill, that’s the real similarity is that political skill is what gets you into those leadership positions.  But that’s where the problem really starts. Because getting into it, and we refer to this as the within group competition, right. So you win that within group competition for status, now you’re in the top status position. But that doesn’t actually mean you’re effective at leading. And again, if we compare that to our ancestors, tribes, right, the people who were, who were put in leadership roles, were really effective at leading, that’s the reason they were put in that role. Today’s leaders aren’t necessarily they could be good leaders, but they aren’t necessarily effective at leading, what they’re really effective at is playing that political game.

Roddy Millar  26:28

And I think that that, that resonates with me very, very loudly, that the more I sort of explore leadership, the more I think there are these two very distinct, different types of, of leader, there’s the leader that we have come to think of as a leader who is the politician, but isn’t necessarily very good at actually doing the things that we then describe leaders as needing to do, that they’re good at doing the charismatic standing up, and communicating and, and selling,  selling an idea, selling a purpose, perhaps. But in terms of the definition of leadership, which is sort of creating the conditions where people can do their best work. Where we can get people to come together and, and make the greatest impact. They’re probably not very good at doing that. And I wonder whether we, we can confuse ourselves with this word leadership, because we have in our mind, at the front of our mind is this concept still of the Great Leader here, the great man theory. But while we know that, in fact, good leaders are possibly a people who, who listen, people who allow you to go out and explore and be curious and try new things, people who know therefore, except that mistakes will get made and, and pull it together. They’re much more collaborative, though. They’re vulnerable. We look at some recent.., there are quite a lot of strong man, politician leaders around the world at the moment, and you certainly wouldn’t put vulnerable as a as an adjective to describe them. or indeed, very good at listening, one would hazard a guess.

Ryne Sherman  28:16

There’s a lot to unpack there. But I think one of the big a couple of big ideas were, again, think about what effective leadership would have been like, for our ancestors, right? Effective leadership would have been about again, somebody that the group trusts, right, well, how do you build trust? How do you get the group to trust you? Well, you have to have integrity, right? You have to be, you know, honest, you have to not do not double-deal, not engaging cronyism, right, you had to treat everybody fairly. We also know that those effective leaders of those groups had to have good judgment, they had to make good decisions about, you know, should we go over there? Should we go over there, right? If you made a bad decision, your tribe was out of the gene pool, right? So it was really important to have leaders who made you who made good decisions, it was also really important to have leaders who were humble, who could learn from their mistakes could improve and could get better. And we’ve lost a lot of that, you know, that’s, that’s all still true today, in terms of effective leaders, right, being effective is really about those kinds of things. But we’ve lost that when we think about selecting leaders.  And, and just, I think a lot of this in the corporate world really kicked off in the 1970s. So it used to be that, you know, a CEO would make, you know, 2, 4, up to 10 times the average salary of the typical employee in an organization. And then some economists started talking about what’s known as Agency Theory, which is this idea that people will only… you know the CEO isn’t motivated by just their salary. They’re not motivated to do just their job, they need to be extra motivated if we want to drive… And this was mostly driven by investors, right, so investors who wanted to get a better return on their investments, and I want the stock price to go up, so I can get a better return on my investment. So they started looking for CEOs who promised to do those kinds of things, right? Who who made big promises about, you know, big return on investment, who are again, very charismatic, very persuasive, very good at playing the political game. And in fact, there’s some research showing that those kinds of CEOs actually do you know, drive up stock prices. I mean, I think, a really classic example, and he’s not with us anymore, so it’s a little unfair, would be somebody like Jack welch, who, who drove up the price of GE crazy. But then he left and GE has been a disaster ever since. And not because of, well, he’s not there anymore. And so now it’s the disasters, because of all the policies he put in place that were really just faking it really making it look like GE was more worth more than it really was, drove up that investment that drove up the return for investors drove up the price. But ultimately, there was nothing there, the company was losing money. And so he left GE in shambles. But again, you know, made those promises was big, bold, charismatic, you know, got into that leadership role. But really wasn’t that effective at making the organization perform.

Roddy Millar  31:26

Yeah, it’s that sort of lack of sustainability, isn’t it, it’s that you, your focus, as one can be very cynical about it, or only just slightly cynical about it. But your your, your your, the focus of some CEOs may well be just to ensure that the share price is at its peak at the moment, they take their share options and retire. But I mean, I think one of the other things that came through very clearly in that Maasai experience, and I’ve been exploring it a bit more, through my work with Territory Mapping is this idea that they don’t really, they don’t have a leader in the Maasai. And that’s often the case, again, in other indigenous groups. They have different leaders for different sort of contexts and different, different decision making areas. But they all tend to be elders, and elders have that sort of ‘quiet wisdom’ approach to them. So they’re not out there instructing and get barking orders and telling people that this is what we’re going to do, but that they’re there as a sounding board. And I think, often that that whole concept of leadership is lost in the West, this idea of, of the elder and wisdom. And I know that you have been doing some work around this concept of the the Absentee Leader. And I wonder whether those two, those two things are sort of either end of the spectrum, or perhaps more closely allied.

Ryne Sherman  33:05

Yeah, I mean, the Absentee Leader is a is a really fascinating line of research that we only got into relatively recently other folks have been doing it for a while. But essentially, what we find in organizations and what some other folks find in organizations, is particularly at the mid-management level, right? When we’re talking about big corporations, there is this plethora of leaders who don’t really do a whole lot. So they’re essentially in the leadership positions, but they’re really not there for the group, they really don’t, you know, vouch for their group, they don’t really do things to help their group improve, they sort of just hold hold the thing, you know, hold, just keep, you know, keep chaos from erupting, right. So to give a comparison, right? So, you know, the big bold, brash leaders tend to make headlines, right? They tend to, you know, and everybody catches, wind of them, and the Wall Street Journal or whatever. But these, these leaders, these absentee leaders are… fly under the radar. They don’t make a lot of noise. And so that’s why in fact, in some respects, their managers actually like them, right. The top executives kind of like these middle-managers who don’t do anything because they don’t cause any problems, right? They just keep, they just, you know, you come to them with a problem. They go, Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, I’ll go talk to and then they don’t do anything about it. Right? And so, and the staff feel extremely alienated by these absentee leaders because they feel like this person is not engaging me. They’re not, they don’t care. They’re just here collecting a paycheck every week and just sort of riding this thing out. And it’s actually really toxic for the staff, the staff, you know, the drives, their leaders crazy, are trying to drive the staff crazy these leaders do and they quit and they in the end, they end up leaving. But the thing that’s really fascinating about it is because they cause so few problems, right? That they, that they end-up staying in these positions for a really long time. Even though they’re not very effective, right? They’re not actually building a team. They’re not making the team better and high performing. There, in fact, just avoiding conflict, avoiding problems avoiding issues.

Roddy Millar  35:27

Now, I but do they get promoted? as a general rule or are they quite happy to just?

Ryne Sherman  35:35

Yeah, not so much. Not that motivated for bigger promotion, they’re not looking for the and, and again, this is another reason why those senior executives sort of like them, because they don’t see them as competition, right? This isn’t competition for me, this isn’t competition for my job, this person keeps problems away from me, this person pushes my agenda down the pipeline. Right. And, you know, I don’t I don’t have to worry about them.  It’s it’s really interesting. We did some research, looking at performance ratings on managers, a couple of years ago, saying, Okay, what what personality characteristics predict getting good performance ratings, as a manager, these performance ratings, by the way, came from executives, right. So directors and executives are making these ratings of these sort of mid-level managers. And what we found that predicted performance ratings was basically being really docile was like nothing that looked like what you would think of as a stereotype of leadership, not pushing for results, not driving your team ahead, not setting long-term goals, right? It was just basically causing no problems. That’s what it was. It was basically just being sort of a ‘yes’ person. Okay. Yeah, sure, whatever, you know. That was actually the number one predictor of being rated as a high performing manager. And it’s just really, I think it’s really fascinating, because what it says is that what the people at the top of the organization, and again, we can go back to these sort of feudal organizations or even Neo-, post-Neolithic Revolution, organizations, right, again, you’ve got these top, you know, people at the very top, and then you’ve got that, that mid-level group, the the nobles, the priests who, you know, they get paid pretty well. And as long as they’re not, you know, in rebellion or causing problems, everything’s all good with the people at the top.

Roddy Millar  37:32

I mean, in a way, it’s a, it’s a pretty good life, isn’t it, if you’re an absentee leader, it’s not good for the organization, it’s not good for the people beneath you. But for if you’re not driving things forward, so you don’t have the stress of that you’re merely keeping it at the semblance of effectiveness. So that those above you who pay you think you’re you’re doing a good job, then then you can still reap the rewards? So what’s the what should be the response to that? Because obviously, that’s not sustainable, good for the, the growth and productivity of the organization.

Ryne Sherman  38:10

Yeah, in fact, that’s actually what some other researchers find is that we tend to, again, we tend to think of, Oh, you know, the people at the very, very top are the ones that cause the problems or cause the disasters and the and occasionally, that is, that is the case. But more often, in a typical organization, the people at the top are fairly effective. It’s those mid-level managers that are creating this toxicity, you know, this toxic nature inside the organization that, you know, are making people want to quit and be disengaged. And so the cure, right. So what’s the cure for that? You know, you know, coming from my background, we think the cure is good personality assessment, right? So if you can do a good job selecting these managers, and again, that’s another problem. Again, even a lot of times those managers are selected, because they don’t cause problems because they do an okay job. Because they don’t, they’re not seen as a threat. You know, to senior level people, right, that who senior level people might be a little reluctant to promote someone who they who they…

Roddy Millar  39:13

… who might outshine them.

Ryne Sherman  39:14

Yes, exactly. Exactly. So there is Yeah, there’s so the with good personalities as well, the other cure. And the other thing that we’ve talked about is you cannot rely on top director and executive level ratings. They don’t really know what’s going on what’s really going if you want to know if these leaders are effective, you have to ask the team. Ask the people because they they know, right. If they have an Absentee Leader, they will tell you that this person is ineffective and here’s all the reasons why. But often people don’t want to do that, because it takes more time and takes more effort. And the other thing is we’re sort of bias to trust our own judgment. Right? If If five or six people tell us that managers ineffective, and we’re like, well, but I like that manager and I get along with that manager. And, you know, we tend to think all those five or six people, they’re just, you know, grumpy and can never be satisfied or whatever. Right? Right. We tend to trust our own judgment more than others.

Roddy Millar  40:13

And I wonder if, you know, to speak-up for the Absentee Leader a little bit is, you know… are they like that through a lack of development? Are they like that from executive managerial development? Are they like that because they fear being more assertive or more innovative? Does it come, often from you know, that, that restricting nature that they don’t want to upset… that they know that they’re on a comfortable position at the moment, why upset it? And so can can they be prompted into being more?

Ryne Sherman  40:57

Yeah, certainly, some of it comes from that, some of it comes from just being you know, burnt out and worn out on an organization. Some of it becomes from saying, I, you know, I don’t want to play the political game anymore. I just want to be comfortable here. Some of it comes from from is learned, a lot of it is learned by watching what goes on in the organization and saying, I just, you know, I’m giving up I’m defeated.

Roddy Millar  41:23

Now, I think that’s I’m really, I’m sure that’s endemic, is that a) we we replicate the behaviors that we that we’ve experienced ourselves. And also, by the time you’re, you’ve, you’ve got to that position, you, as you say, that you’re you’re burnt out a little bit.  Fascinating. Ryan, well, we’re out of time, it’s been absolute pleasure speaking to you. And you know, there are so many avenues here, it’d be great to come back and explore some of these with you in more depth in the future. But in the meantime, thank you very much indeed, that’s been hugely enjoyable, and, and given us lots of food for thought. So, Ryne Sherman thank you very much, indeed.

Ryne Sherman  42:10

Thanks, a lot. Roddy. Happy to be here.



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