What pushy fish can teach you about influence at work

Research into marine power struggles casts light on the role of influence and dominant bosses in organisations.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 05 Aug 2020

Command-and-control leadership has been out of fashion for a long time now, and for good reason: being pushy, shouty and generally domineering only seems like a good idea if you assume no one else in the organisation has anything to contribute other than their obedience.  

But new research indicates that even when it comes to getting people to do what you want, aggressive leadership is not particularly effective. At least, not among fish. 

Astatotilapia Burtoni (not pictured) is a social cichlid fish that lives in highly hierarchical social groups in which dominant males control access to the resources, territory and space within the wider shoal. 

Researchers from University of Konstanz, the co-located Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Texas wanted to understand the level of influence exerted by individual males throughout the wider group. 

Did the colourful males that aggressively defended resources have more influence among the wider group compared to less territorial, more passive males? They measured the level of influence by studying the flow of information between the males and the wider shoal. 

Communication took place within two contexts. One was general social interactions, in which the dominant fish pushed and coerced other fish in order to control the space. The second was a learning based task in which the fish were trained to associate certain lights within the tank with food. “Informed” males were then introduced to uninformed groups, allowing their level of influence throughout the group to be measured.

As expected, when it came to the control of space the dominant males were more influential - by attacking their tank mates, they were able to get them to do what they wanted.

However, when it came to the more complex task, in which the wider shoal had a choice over which light to move towards, the subordinate males exerted more influence by acting as demonstrators. 

Groups influenced by subordinate males also took less time to reach a consensus compared to dominant-led groups, some of which didn’t reach consensus at all. 

By running additional machine-learning-based animal tracking, the researchers were able to identify how the level of influence was determined by the specific behaviours. The aggressive dominant males, while highly social (in their own way - they expressed it mainly by attacking their team mates) were generally avoided the rest of the time - their tank mates only interacted with them when they had to.

When given a choice, individuals in the shoal were more likely to follow less domineering fish. It was therefore the nature of the social interaction, rather than the ‘social position’, that had the most influence. 

The researchers say that organisations can learn from this when thinking about who they promote as leaders. 

While domineering individuals are traditionally those most likely to ascend to positions of power in business, this can create “less effective” influence structures, says senior author Alex Jordan, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and at the University of Konstanz.

"The same traits that make you powerful in one context can actively reduce your influence in others, especially in contexts where individuals are free to choose who to follow,” adds Jordan. 

“Dominant individuals can force their will on the group by being pushy, but that also makes them socially aversive. When it comes to bringing peers to consensus during more sophisticated tasks, it is the least aggressive individuals that exert the greatest influence.”

Image credit: Alexis Rosenfeld / Contributor vis Getty Images


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