“On the surface, ball hogs and endless meetings might seem unrelated,” sallies Dave Berri on the Freakonomics blog. “Research, though, indicates that players chucking shots at a basket and people prolonging a meeting with endless comments may actually be a function of something similar.”
The similarity? Both ball hogs and charlatans tend to have dominant personalities — along with the desire to be perceived as all-stars or leaders. You might wonder: Why would anyone confuse a quack with a leader? But a study on the subject of “competence-signaling” suggests that, indeed, frequent speaking at meetings can make you appear more competent than you actually are.
Specifically, a 2009 report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by professors Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff found that “the ones who emerged as leaders and were rated the highest in competence were not the ones who offered the greatest number of correct answers. Nor were they the ones whose SAT scores suggested they’d even be able to. What they did do was offer the most answers — period.”
In basketball, there’s a comparable misjudgment of quantity for quality. In the same way that bystanders at meetings can perceive a motormouth as a leader, basketball minds can perceive a player who amasses tons of points as a star. “Published academic research for decades has indicated that scoring dominates the evaluation of basketball players by observers both within and outside the industry,” notes Berri.
To be certain, scoring is a valuable hoops skill. But the sport is littered with players who get their points — and therefore, their star status — by hoisting a high volume of shots. These players are the equivalent of quacks at meetings. The sheer quantity of their efforts signals competence to most observers. The trick, in evaluating their talent, is to dig deeper, to plumb the quantity (of shots, or remarks) for a high percentage of quality.
In basketball, scouts do this by tempering the crucial metric (scoring) with other metrics: shots, turnovers, shooting percentage, team results. They also flesh out the metrics with detailed in-game observations. At meetings, life is not that simple. “People might get a bit upset if we started evaluating each comment to see if it actually indicated ‘competency’ or if it were just indicative of ‘pseudo-competency,‘ notes Berri. “In fact, if we had such a system people might be reluctant to speak at all.”
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
If you thought you’d escape a basketball article without a reference to New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, you thought wrong. As it happens, a key argument in Berri’s article was that when the Knicks lost their leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony, in mid-February, they won five games in a row -- more proof, in Berri’s, view, that star scorers are often less valuable than they are perceived to be.
However, Berri neglects to mention that Anthony’s absence coincided with Lin’s emergence -- a glaring omission on Berri’s part. In the opinion of many a sportswriter, the rise of Lin had much more to do with the Knicks’ hot streak than did Anthony’s absence.
As for preventing those long meetings: We recommend two stories from the Build archives: the "Death By Meetings" quiz and "For a Meeting to Be Good, It Has to Risk Being Bad."
And if Anderson and Kilduff’s study on competence-signaling is of interest, good news: You can read the whole thing, verbatim. It’s linked to Kilduff’s faculty page at the NYU Stern School of Business. You can also read an article in Time about the study; the writer, Jeffrey Kluger, does a great job of summarizing the main points.