Americans value leaders and leadership to a relatively high degree. When someone is charismatic, confident, and talented, we tend to fall in line behind them, and try to pick up on their habits and techniques. We look up to our leaders, and adapt to their management styles to try and build off of them to gain momentum for our own personal successes.
But not all leaders are created equally. In fact, something tends to happen to people in leadership or management positions in most organizations, with enough time. It could be your boss, your CEO, or even a co-worker who outranks you; either way, many eventually fall victim to the same problem. We grow to hate them.
Perhaps hate is a strong word, but they can definitely lose their appeal. And social scientists have started to unravel why, and how, that happens. You can call it the “chocolate cake” phenomenon.
A new study, published in the Journal of Personality, explains how our affinity for leaders – narcissistic leaders, to be precise – is a lot like chocolate cake. “The first bite of chocolate cake is usually rich in flavor and texture, and extremely gratifying,” the study says. “After a while, however, the richness of this flavor makes one feel increasingly nauseous. Being led by a narcissist could be a similar experience.”
The study was summarized by the British Psychological Society, explaining how the “chocolate cake model” is a basic manifestation of our most base desires. We see something that we want, and completely overindulge. It also goes back to a basic economic principle, the law of diminishing returns. We simply don’t get as much satisfaction or utility from additional doses or units (in this case, interactions or time spent with a narcissistic boss) as we do from the first few.
How did researches figure all of this out? By recruiting 142 students, and putting them through a couple studies in which they rated each others’ leadership abilities. Those who were more narcissistic were rated highly early in the process, but quickly lost their luster – mostly because it became clear that they didn’t have what it took to be a leader. Namely, they couldn’t motivate or inspire.
We’ve touched on a similar phenomenon before, having looked at another study that got to the core of business negotiations. Basically, we can talk a big game, but don’t deliver. It causes our deals to blow up in our faces, whether they be employment contracts, personal promises, or anything else.
Given the current situation in American politics, it’s easy to see the “chocolate cake” model at work. Just take a look at how we feel about our presidents. American presidents typically get swept into office on a wave of support and enthusiasm. But, with time, that support wanes, and they are judged on whether or not they’re getting anything done, or doing a good job. Take a look at George W. Bush’s approval numbers, from Gallup:
Likewise, we can look at approval numbers from several administrations – most with a noticeable downward trend – with this chart from Pew Research:
The most obvious example of this happening in real time, right now, is with Donald Trump’s prospective presidency. He’s charismatic and narcissistic, and basically fits the “chocolate cake” model to a T. And as many might suspect, electing him would probably be very exciting for his supporters, but ultimately, lead to some very unfavorable outcomes.
What’s the lesson in all of this? If you’re in a position of leadership, or a manager of some kind, lose the narcissism, and focus on those you’re leading. Yes, you may be able to win over a good number of converts and supporters in the short-term with blustering Trumpisms and out-talking others, but at the end of the day, you’ll likely just find yourself surrounded by yes-men. And a whole host of others who have lost their affinity for you.
As a leader, your job isn’t to seek personal glory, but rather, lift up those around and below you. Effective leaders earn respect first, and keep it. Poor leaders are quickly washed out. So, don’t rely on gimmicks and psychological tricks to gain attention – or you’ll quickly be forgotten and digested. Like a piece of cake.