What can organizational psychology tell us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK (23261468319)

By Chatham House (Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It never fails to astonish me that much of what we have learned from applying the science of the mind to the context of work does not seem to have made much of an impact on the world of politics. Politicians, by definition, are leaders – so we should apply leadership theories to our assessments of their performance. Politicians’ day job is politics, but surely they need to bring the right knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) – things that we would measure in any other job to see if people are suited to what they do.

In 2007, Jo Silvester and Christina Dykes published a longitudinal study of prospective political candidates. The  researchers conducted a job analysis, which is the first step in organizational psychology for a range of activities including selection and training, to draw up a competency framework – what do politicians need to be good at? The resulting competencies (KSAs) looked very much like those we would expect to find in other organisational contexts, including ‘intellectual skills’, ‘relating to people’ and ‘leading and motivating’; the only politics-specific competency was the level of ‘political conviction’. Performance, as measured in this way, predicted political performance, but so did their critical thinking capacity as measured by psychometric tests. So what can we learn from this study? Political performance can be measured, and surely it should be transparent to both politicians, but also voters, what marks ‘good’ performance in this context. This study found no evidence for any gender differences either.

So how do Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn fare when measured against aspects of this framework, based on what we have observed of their leadership during the general election campaign? I remain unconvinced that either displayed critical thinking capacities if we take the election manifesto of either party as a performance output. The conservative manifesto was ill judged, alienated core voters (the dementia tax….) and overall just did not convince enough people that the Tories were worth re-electing. The Labour manifesto scored higher on political conviction, but had almost no suggestions for how any changes might be funded, putting strategy before any references to feasibility of implementation.

What about each party leader’s capacity to lead and motivate? Corbyn and his party clearly succeeded in mobilising grass roots support and also mobilising the young electorate which had absented itself from the Brexit referendum.

‘Communication skills’ and ‘intellectual skills’ are another aspect of the model of political performance. Taking reactions to the recent terrorist attacks as an example, May failed to show any human reaction to what were two sets of tragic events in short sequence, at a time when the general public is in great need of reassurance and support. Corbyn, on the other hand, attributed the happenings as a reaction to the UK’s involvement in war in Muslim countries; not a correct inference, as neutral countries have also been subject to attacks.

In terms of leadership, Theresa May seemed uncertain during what political commentators unanimously refer to as a disastrous and misguided election campaign. Her chief aides have now resigned, which throws into question her judgment on which advisors to surround herself with. Good advisors and teams are crucial to any political role. Modern life is so fast-moving, complex and, as recent events have demonstrated, unpredictable that no one person can lead a party, let alone a country, on their own.

In organizational psychology terms, there is a substantial body of research which demonstrates that ‘shared leadership’ across teams and organisations leads to better performance and better outcomes all around. Yet, in politics as well as in corporate life, we tend to pin our hopes on the one person at the top. Surely the time has come to change this, and make political leadership a more balanced, fair and transparent process than is currently unfolding in front of our eyes.

I grew up in Germany, learning in English textbooks about the Anglosaxon culture, about the power of the voice of the people and the unique British democratic process. Yet, recently, I no longer feel so certain that the current political system is serving us well and reading the political press in my home country, it seems other voices in Europe agree.

The time seems to have come to rethink politics and democracy to instil fairer and more transparent processes to ensure that a) politicians are up to their job and b) voters can make informed decisions.

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