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Build Your Career Office Life

Your Boss May Be Smarter Than You Think

Your Boss May Be Smarter Than You Think
Credit: baranq/Shutterstock

There's a good chance your boss is smarter than you think, new research finds.

In order to disprove the stereotype that bosses are cold and competent, many managers to try to come across as dumber to appear "warmer" to the employees who work for them, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

However, they're not the only ones changing their behavior in the office. Employees are also doing a bit of acting to disprove the stereotypes held about them by hiding their own warmth in attempt to be seen as smarter by their boss.

"In doing this, people might actually talk past each other, making people have more of an awkward misunderstanding," the study's lead author, Jillian Swencionis, a doctoral candidate in psychology and social policy at Princeton University, said in a statement. "Our findings illustrate just how invasive perceived inequality and social hierarchies really are, impacting both interpersonal relationships and workplace encounters."

For the study, researchers conducted several experiments with between 150 and 200 participants in each. In the first experiment, the participants were told to think about what it is like when working with people in different departments of their company. Each participant was randomly assigned a partner who was either in a higher-ranked position, a lower-ranked position or a same-rank position. They were asked to describe how they thought the collaboration would go and to rate how much they wanted their partner to know certain traits about themselves. The researchers included 20 traits, half of which conveyed competence, like "ambitious" or "capable," while the other half conveyed warmth, such as "considerate" or "generous."

The researchers discovered that higher-ranked employees played down their skills to appear warmer to lower-ranked employees, while the lower-ranked workers downplayed their warmth in an effort to come across as more competent. [See Related Story: Working Hard or Just Sucking Up? Your Boss Knows the Difference ]

In another experiment, the participants were again randomly asked to imagine being paired with a supervisor or a subordinate and asked to choose the traits (the same from the previous experiment) they would want to share with their partner. This time around, the participants were given details about how friendly their partner was in the workplace as a way to see what they would do with this additional information.

"When people are 'playing dumb' or pretending to be unfriendly, are they doing this to disconfirm stereotypes about themselves or are they simply trying to be like the other person?" Swencionis said.

The study's authors found that the participants were trying to both disprove perceived stereotypes about themselves and match those of their partners.

"They are trying to bridge this gap between what low-status and high-status people are stereotyped as being," said Susan Fiske, the study's co-author and a Princeton professor. "Part of bridging that gap is not being that way, and part is getting closer to what the other person is."

In a final experiment, the participants were asked to rate how they perceived their partner and how they thought their partner perceived them, in an effort to determine whether a person's goals shaped the interaction.

The results revealed that supervisors were concerned with being stereotyped as cold and competent, and therefore downplayed their abilities, while lower-status employees were focused on how they could be more like their supervisors.

"All of our studies show this clear pattern in which people are uncomfortable with status divides because of how they are stereotyped or perceived," Fiske said. "As a result, they present themselves in diverging ways."

Fiske said it is important for human resource managers, job applicants, reference-letter writers, organizational managers and candidate-image handlers to understand that workers seen as highly competent will seem colder, and employees viewed as really warm will seem dumber, even though these dimensions don't tell the whole story.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.