The psychology behind good leadership

Pascal Molenberghs shares his expertise in how psychology can be employe to help marketers be better leaders

Associate professor at the Institute for Social Neuroscience, Pascal Molenberghs, shares his wealth of insights into the psychology of leadership
Associate professor at the Institute for Social Neuroscience, Pascal Molenberghs, shares his wealth of insights into the psychology of leadership

The science of psychology has long and deep associations with marketing, but it also offers a lot to marketers as leaders within their organisations.

Speaking at the CMO Momentum conference in Melbourne, associate professor at the Institute for Social Neuroscience, Pascal Molenberghs, described how psychological principles underpinning brand building can also be applied to becoming better leaders.

Firstly, Molenberghs described how group membership can sway people’s opinions, as found by Alexander Haslam in his book, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power.

“Good leaders are people who can create a shared vision of the future that followers can identify with,” Molenberghs told attendees. “It is not about the person themselves, it is about the followers, and creating a shared vision to make sure people can follow you in your vision. Effective leaders are those who make personal sacrifices for the group. And they use words like we and us.”

This was born out through analysis of the content of political speeches, which found candidates who used words like ‘we’ and ‘us’ than ‘I’ and ‘me’ won 80 per cent of the time.

“If you want to be seen as a good leader, try to use words like ‘we’ and ‘us’ to create this shared vision,” he advised.

Similarly, Molenberghs described various studies demonstrating how people were more likely to think positively about the statements made by people who belonged to a group they identified with.

“When people believed the statements came from an ingroup leader, they rated them as much more inspirational compared to the opposite,” Molenberghs said. “It is critical you are seen as an ingroup leader, because if you are seen as an outgroup leader then it doesn’t matter how inspirational your message is, people will always focus on the negative and non-inspirational messages.

“Therefore it is critical for aspiring leaders to create this group shared identity that everyone can identify with.”

Molenberghs also discussed the importance of fairness to employees, through studies that investigated how people’s perceptions of distribution rarely matched reality.

“People don’t want everybody to be exactly the same, because they think it motivates people to work harder,” he continued. “People are also happy if there is a pay gap, if there is enough social mobility. And people are happy if the unequal distribution is based on merit.

“But what people really dislike is if there is an unequal distribution that is not deemed fair.”

This research tied in closely to people’s appetite for risk and corresponding tolerance of loss and desire for gain.

“It is critical employees feel like a winner, because if they are seen as losers, they will be less motivated, less willing to contribute, and you will be less likely to be seen as an inspirational leader,” Molenberghs said. “Try to make people see how they contribute to a group outcome, so that everybody is motivated and trying to do extra to develop a common goal.”

This desire to be seen as winners also influenced people’s belief they were more likely to be successful even when those around them weren’t. This often saw leaders make irresponsible decisions because they don’t like to lose, or to only focus on successful outcomes, rather than reality.

“If you start an IT business you might look at Facebook and Google as being successful, but you don’t look at the other 100 companies that have not been successful.”

Furthermore, Molenberghs described how people who have already invested in something are likely to continue investing even if the chances of a successful outcome are dwindling.

“If you are invested in something you are much more likely to invest even more in it. And if you think that something belongs to you then you think it is much more valuable than it in reality is,” he said.

All this tied into people’s desire to have a positive view of themselves, and to see this reflected in the groups for which they were members.

“People like to belong to groups that give a good positive view about themselves,” Molenberghs added. “If you belong to a group that’s successful, you have derived an identity from that that. People don’t want to have less than others, especially if it is unjustified. And people don’t like to lose and be seen as a loser, they want to be seen as a winner.”

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