We need candidates with a little niggle, a bit of a dark side – and more opportunities to demonstrate the necessary mindset and skills

Opinion: There have been a few recent misses in candidate selection for New Zealand’s political parties.

Selection is not an exact science – it’s more about getting the odds leaning the right way. Choosing those who have more of the desired qualities and less of those not desired. The All Blacks have the policy of not selecting ‘dickheads’.  

Antagonistic, self-serving personalities are not great team players. Work is increasingly networked and collaborative; obnoxious behaviour can disrupt team effectiveness and productivity.

However – research into political leaders indicates, that in the right time and place, a little bit of niggle can be electorally useful.

Working from a database covering 157 leaders around the world over 81 elections, where the contesting politicians were rated by over 1,800 independent scholars, Alessandro Nai has found that the perception of politicians’ conscientiousness and their ‘open-mindedness’ (being open to varied viewpoints) contributes to election success.

Also helpful was a bit of ‘dark side’ personality – the inclination to break rules and act selfishly.

Context is also important.  Voters are more likely to go for disruptive candidates if things are going bad. Research in the European Union (over 140 elections up to 2019) found that economic growth contributes about 6.5% towards voters going for the incumbent politicians.  

Happiness, in general, contributed around 9% to voters giving the incumbents another go. In contrast, unhappy people are more likely to vote for challengers – contributing to the rejection of incumbents.  

A fascinating study of voters in the UK by Federica Liberini and her colleagues found that recently bereaved voters tended to vote against incumbents. The unhappy voter who supports the disruptive challenger might be concerned about the economy, or issues closer to home.

Given the selection committee has a profile of the knowledge, skills and personality required – how do they identify who has what it takes?  

I recommend giving emerging talents early opportunities to show their stuff, particularly taking responsibility to promote and make progress on issues. For example – although she is past the ‘emergent’ stage – Chlöe Swarbrick owning issues such as the need to better control alcohol in New Zealand.

Providing early opportunities has several advantages. 

Early political experience gives people the chance to check out the tough reality of political work. Any job, but especially politics, comes with really hard parts. The chance to try out the job before buying into it helps those with political aspirations to test out the whole package. Not just the glitz, schmoozing or other aspects that might have surface appeal.

A massive advantage of providing early opportunities is that decision-makers get to see the person performing, particularly in roles where arrogance and meanness don’t work. Politics is never a one-woman or one-man show.  

Stakeholders have to be worked with, support crew encouraged, and colleagues engaged.  Can this potential candidate work through such issues?

Objective observation of how the person does on the job provides behavioural evidence to guide decisions about who gets what chances. Relying on a candidate selection interview alone is more prone to error than a more comprehensive sample of behaviour provided by on-the-job trials (or even interactive simulations of some important parts of the candidate role).

Another benefit of providing relevant political experience is that those with the inclination learn some of the skills of politicking – debating, the ‘modest brag’ of kiwi-style self-promotion, building coalitions and achieving results through successful negotiation and collaboration.

We face the threat of climate change and further pandemics requiring significant public behaviour change. This escalates the priority of identifying and developing the leaders capable of encouraging such change across communities.

Leave a comment