One of the reasons I enjoy studying psychology is that the evidence research uncovers sometimes seems to run counter to commonsense.
For example, with the rumours of the owners of Manchester United running out of patience with David Moyes swirling around the media today, who should they choose to succeed him? An internationally famous manager with a track record of winning trophies at the highest level, but with no emotional connection to the club, or one of their fans, picked at random by means of a lottery?
It may surprise you to know that psychological research rooted in social identity theory suggests that the second course of action may be the better one to take. (I know of many Manchester United fans who believe that anyone would have been a better choice than David Moyes, but the evidence doesn’t really bear that out). This finding is documented in a study by Alex Haslam and others (*) who come to the conclusion that if a group has a specific goal to achieve and you want to maintain or strengthen that group, you’re better off choosing your leader at random – provided that the group already has a salient social identity and actually wishes to achieve the goal that has been set.
Paradoxically however, leaders and their followers tend to perceive that randomly selecting a leader is somehow unsatisfactory, ineffective and illegitimate, even when there is clear evidence that picking a leader at random results in demonstrably better outcomes.
I first came across this fascinating piece of research and wrote about it elsewhere just before starting my masters. At the time, I suggested that Manchester United ought to have taken notice of it during their appointment of Sir Alex’s successor. Maybe they’ll take Haslam’s advice second time around? I’m not holding my breath!
(*) Haslam, S.A., McGarty, C., Brown, P.M., Eggins, R.A., Morrison, B.E., & Reynolds, K.J. (1998). ‘Inspecting the emperor’s clothes: evidence that randomly selected leaders can enhance group performance’, Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 2, 168-184.