Saturday, September 25, 2004

Why People Follow the Leader

For the past few years I have been noticing that it's getting harder and harder for leaders to motivate their staff. Back in my day, (don't you hate when people say, "back in my day...?"), most of us were easily swept into a cause, corporate or otherwise, by a charismatic leader. I've been struggling with why the change and I think at last I might have found the answer.

An article by Michael Maccoby in September's Harvard Business Review provides some clues. The article is titled, Why People Follow the Leader:The Power of Transference. Maccoby explains about the psychological phenomenon known as transference whereby people transfer experiences and emotions from past relationships onto the present. Maccoby's theory is that employees often view their leaders in a paternal or parental way. When an employee believes he will receive parental-like approval, he will often work in superhuman ways to receive that approval. In this case the paternal transference results in favorable behavior.

But sometimes transference is not so positive. According to Maccoby,
The images we project from childhood are shaped by the family cultures we grew up with, a fact of particular importance today because more people now have family experiences that differ -- sometimes quite radically from what was long considered the norm. Indeed, I've noticed that for an increasing number of people, the significant person from the past is not a parent but a sibling, a close childhood friend, or even a nanny.

Maccoby goes on to say that this generation of employees often thrives in peer networks but can be hard to lead because they may have an anarchic ideal of leadership. Because of the increase in sibling transference (as opposed to parental transference) employees are becoming increasingly critical of and ambivalent toward their bosses and may show less interest in being mentored and mentoring.

I'm still not exactly sure of the best way to use this information but it is nice to learn that there might be a reason behind the frustrations companies are experiencing related to motivating staff. The article does offer some suggestions.

You can read a description of the article and/or purchase it for $6.00 here.

Beth C.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if Maccoby isn't trying to hard to find another angle to view things from.

It may be true, as he says, that the images we project from childhood are shaped by the family cultures we grew up with. On the other hand, psychologist Steven Pinker points out in "The Blank Slate" that the strongest influence on a child's personality is not the parent(s), but the peers. So much for the tramsferemce of the influence of the parent.

Not that parents don't matter in an individual's life -- of course they do. But their influence isn't the be-all and end-all, and what it strikes me Maccoby is doing is overemphasizing this nearly-unprovable hypothesis and tying to the never-ending myth of the
charismatic (and always by implication effective and successful) leader.

Less scientifically, perhaps, I recall an exchange between Sir Thomas More and his monarch in "A Man for All Seasons." Henry VIII is looking for More's approval. More points out that the crowd already follows Henry.

"The crowd follows me," replies the king, "because the crowd follows anything that moves."

2:02 PM, September 29, 2004  
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