Typically regarded as a common virtue, generosity can also be a sign of weakness for leaders, according to a new study.
The research finds that contributing to the public good influences a person's status on two critical dimensions: prestige and dominance.
"People with high prestige are often regarded as saints, possessing a self-sacrificial quality and strong moral standards," said Robert Livingston, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. "However, while these individuals are willing to give their resources to the group, they are not perceived as tough leaders."
The researchers define dominance as an imposed alpha status whereas prestige is freely conferred admiration from others. Al Capone, for example, characterizes a high-dominance individual, whereas Mother Theresa represents a high-prestige individual.
The study argues that people with high prestige are perceived as desirable leaders in noncompetitive contexts; they are seen as submissive compared to individuals who strive to maximize their personal gains. In times of competition, individuals who are less altruistic are seen as dominant and more appealing as leaders.
"Our findings show that people want respectable and admired group members to lead them at times of peace, but when 'the going gets tough' they want a dominant, power-seeking individual to lead the group," said Nir Halevy, lead author and acting assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB.
Livingston and Halevy coauthored the research with Taya Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business and PhD student Eileen Chou of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Their study highlights the need to distinguish between different types of status in groups, as well as how intergroup conflict shapes followers' leadership preferences.
"There are numerous academic findings on status but we sought to investigate the antecedents and consequences of two distinct forms of status, depending on the context," said Livingston.
To test their theory, the researchers conducted three experiments where participants were given the option to keep an initial endowment for themselves or contribute it to a group pool. Contributions either only benefited the contributor's fellow group members, or simultaneously benefited the contributor's group members and harmed the members of another group.
The first two experiments found that selfishness and displays of 'out-group hate' - unnecessarily depriving the members of another group - boosted dominance but decreased respect and admiration from others. In contrast, showing in-group love - generously sharing resources with fellow group members - increased respect and admiration but decreased dominance.
The third experiment found that "universalism" - that is, sharing one's resources with both in-group members and outsiders - had the most dire net outcomes on a person's status. The researchers discovered that universal generosity decreased perceptions of both prestige and dominance compared with those who shared resources only with members of their group.
In short, being generous can boost prestige if an individual is selectively generous to his or her own group; this increases respect and admiration from others. However, being selfish or belligerent (unnecessarily harming members of another group) decreases respect and admiration from others but it increases perceptions of personal dominance.
The intriguing consequence is that dominant individuals were more likely than prestigious individuals to be elected as a representative for the group in a mock competition with another group. Thus, being too nice can have negative consequences for leadership.
"Being too generous often comes at a personal cost to one's position of strength or power," Livingston explained.
"This research begins to explore when 'nice guys' finish first and when they finish last, depending on the group context," Halevy said. "Nice guys don't make it to the top when their group needs a dominant leader to lead them at a time of conflict."
The study, "Status Conferral in Intergroup Social Dilemmas: Behavioral Antecedents and Consequences of Prestige and Dominance," will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.