Profile | Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

A series profiling those who influence my thinking

Tomas Chamorro Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. Chamarro-Premuzic has the blend of erudition and literary grace that I find especially unusual and matches that with the range of his research. And he is not shy about puncturing preconceptions that are holding us back.

He has researched leadership deeply, and his most recent book is Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). In a similarly-titled HBR article, he wrote:

[…] when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.

Here are some other examples.

In 7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women, co-authored with Cindy Gallop, the authors write,

Although there is a great deal of public interest in ensuring more women become leaders, thereby reversing their under-representation in the ranks of power, too many suggested solutions are founded on the misconception that women ought to emulate men. The thinking is: “If men have most of the top roles, they must be doing something right, so why not get women to act like them?”

But this logic fails to account for the relatively dismal performance of most leaders — who are overwhelmingly male. As we have argued beforethe real problem is not a lack of competent females [for leadership roles]; it is too few obstacles for incompetent males, which explains the surplus of overconfident, narcissistic, and unethical people in charge.

As a consequence, gender differences in leadership effectiveness (what it takes to perform well) are out of sync with gender differences in leadership emergence (what it takes to make it to the top). Indeed, research shows that the prevalence of male senior leaders is not a product of superior leadership talent in men. Rather, large quantitative studies, including meta-analyses, indicate that gender differences in leadership talent are either nonexistent, or they actually favor women.

With this in mind, it would be more logical to flip the suggested remedy: instead of encouraging women to act like male leaders (many of whom are incompetent), we should be asking men in power to adopt some of the more effective leadership behaviors more commonly found in women. 

Personally, I’ve advocated that we should put women in charge of everything for a hundred years, since men have done such a bad job of things.


Chamarro-Premuzic has the blend of erudition and literary grace that I find especially unusual and matches that with the range of his research. And he is not shy about puncturing preconceptions that are holding us back.


Regarding innovation, he writes,

It is nearly impossible to find a company that disagrees the idea that innovation is important, just like nobody thinks a culture of innovation is a bad idea. And yet, those same organizations are reluctant to invest in innovation unless they are sure that it will pay off. “Sure, we can put in place a culture of innovation, so long as you show me for sure that there is an ROI”. As Jeff Bezos noted in his early Amazon years, “if you know it’s going to work, then it’s not innovation”. So, having a culture of innovation means embracing failure as an option, not least because the alternative more than pays off for it.

In Tech Is Transforming People Analytics. Is That a Good Thing?, after a brief history of the impact of Taylorism and the rise of data-centric HR, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Ian Bailie get down to the key question about people analytics: where is the line between ethical and unethical practices?

It’s not enough to hope that ethics are at the forefront when companies are considering new technology or people analytics projects. In our view, companies need to adopt an ethics charter for people analytics that helps them to clearly govern what they should or shouldn’t do, in the same way that they have guidelines for the usage of customer or financial data. In order to build and maintain employee trust in the use of people data, organizations need to tackle the ethics and privacy topic head on, being open and transparent with employees in how they are using their data.

There is no question that technology, coupled with the near-ubiquitous digitization of work and work-related behaviors, has the potential to help organizations monitor, predict, and understand employee behaviors (and thoughts) at scale, like it has never been done before. At the same time, these same technologies, deployed in an unethical or illegal way, also permit employers to control and manipulate employees, violating trust and threatening not just their freedom and morale, but also their privacy. The only way to keep this from happening is through strict enforcement of adequate laws and regulations that ensure employees remain in the driver’s seat, able to authorize employers to use their data (or not), and benefiting from whatever insights and knowledge are derived from it. To be sure, there is no logical tension between what is good for the employer, and what is good for the employee. But the temptation to force people into certain behaviors, or to use their personal data against them, is more real than one would think.

In Should Companies Use AI to Assess Job Candidates?, Chamorro-Premuzic and Reece Akhtar make a strong case for taking humans out of the loop in hiring:

AI has the potential to significantly improve the way we identify talent as it can reduce the cost of making accurate predictions about one’s potential, while at the same time removing the bias and heuristics that so often cloud human judgement. The fact that AI algorithms can detect and measure latent or seemingly intangible human qualities may lead some to be skeptical of the aforementioned findings, but it is worth noting that there are plenty of scientific studies that demonstrate that humans can accurately identify personality and intellect from just thin slices of verbal and non-verbal behavior. AI algorithms simply leverage the same cues that humans do. The difference between humans and AI is that the latter can scale, and can be automated.

They touch on the ethical and legal implications, but they come down in favor of AI in hiring:

It’s still possible to deploy innovations like the ones we describe here while operating within the constraints of good codes of conduct.

And of course, humans are so biased in their judgments about others it should be a crime to not rely on AI.

Chamorro-Premuzic on why The Best Managers Are Boring Managers:

In the most compelling and comprehensive synthesis of independent scientific studies about managerial competence, Tim Judge reports that effective managers tend to be highly adjusted, sociable, friendly, flexible, and prudent. They are, in fact, the reverse of the famous self-made billionaires and tycoon entrepreneurs we often use as examples of great leaders. Imagine working directly for Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or David Rockefeller; it may sound great, but most people are happiest working for people who are the exact opposite. As Michael Maccoby pointed out in an influential HBR essay, these entrepreneurial leaders “tend to be poor listeners who are sensitive to criticism and demonstrate low levels of emotional intelligence.” In addition, it should be noted that people who are as ruthless, impatient, demanding, and excitable as Jobs and Bezos usually lack the genius to get away with it, so they are much more likely to derail than to invent the next Apple or Amazon.

[…]

Again, when we think of classic charismatic or colorful leaders, you get a very different type of profile. To have emotional intelligence is not to be overwhelmed by emotions and unwillingly leak non-verbal communicational cues; it is about having low emotional reactivity and being as phlegmatic as the Queen of England. As psychological studies have indicated: “The most effective leaders are found to be those who operate from a stable center, who are personally grounded, other-directed and create the kinds of secure and supportive environments where creativity and productivity thrive.”

[…]

In brief, it is time for organizations to understand that their best potential managers are not the people who stand out; they are not the people who self-promote and take credit for others’ achievements, or have mastered the art of politics and upward career management. They may lack charisma and have no remarkable vision for the future, yet they are probably the best people to help execute the company vision and ensure that staff stays engaged and productive.

Anyone seeking to understand the true foundations of good management should start with Chamorro-Premuzic’s work, and explore those that he cites and works with.

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