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Your 'natural' role: boss or worker bee?

Everyone wants to be the boss, right?

Actually, despite America's take-charge culture, some people are more comfortable simply taking direction.

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When given a choice, 55 percent of the subjects in a recent experiment decided they'd rather be the subordinate than the boss. But what psychology researchers at Boston's Northeastern University really wanted to know was how people would behave when placed in the position they didn't choose.

Would reluctant "bosses" rise to the occasion and play the dominant role? Would "assistants" who craved the top spot chafe under someone else's control?

The results, to be published this fall in the Journal of Personality, give some insight into the external and internal forces at play in that daily drama we call work - and could even help some workers who have been struggling to find more gratifying career roles.

The hypothetical setting: an art gallery. Sixty-nine pairs of graduate students were told they'd be doing a short presentation on a piece of art and that the person playing the gallery owner - the boss - would evaluate the assistant. After the students told experimenters which role they preferred, their ranks were assigned by the flip of a coin.

The second 10-minute activity inserted an element of competition. The boss and assistant each chose a different painting and had to argue why it was the best one to display in the gallery. Then they were supposed to come to an agreement.

Afterward, they filled out questionnaires about how dominant they felt and why they had initially wanted to be owner or assistant. Researchers evaluated videotapes of the interactions for signs of dominance, such as the amount of time each person spent talking. (The experiment used same-sex pairs, to eliminate the variable of male-female dynamics.)

Researchers found that bosses were equally dominant regardless of their initial choice of roles. But assistants who had hoped to be bosses asserted themselves more - and got their way more often - than those who were content to be subordinates.

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"In our experiment, there's not a lot at stake, but in a job situation, if you start telling your boss that you want it done your way, you could be in deep trouble," says Judith Hall, a psychology professor at Northeastern who conducted the study with Marianne Schmid Mast of the University of Z├╝rich in Switzerland. "Some of these people who are chafing, if they got some good counseling from above, they might be able to redirect that energy.... They need to use their social skills and their work-related skills to figure out how to get promoted."

Everyone has different needs for autonomy, security, guidance, and control in their work - and understanding that is the key to matching people with satisfying jobs, says Barbara Moses, a career consultant in Toronto and author of "What Next? The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life."

But unfortunately, she says, "it's not a dimension that people pay much attention to. Most HR [human resources] people tend to think about what are the competencies you need for this role, as opposed to what are the psychological attributes you need."

If you're unhappy, changing jobs or finding a place with a work culture that suits you better may be the answer. But if that's too radical a shift, you can adjust your behavior to get better results, Ms. Moses suggests.

Someone who's perceived as too pushy, for instance, "might think, 'I'm just being enthusiastic ... but the other person may be overwhelmed by you or may be reluctant to express disagreement with you because you're so dominant," she says.

Changing your tone and your choice of words slightly can make a big difference. You could start sentences with "It seems to me that" instead of "This is ...." Or talk less quickly and more quietly. Bosses, too, can get more out of certain employees, Moses says, by saying "You might want to consider" instead of rattling off commands.

And if you don't want to be a boss, but don't want to be bossed around, either? There are jobs out there that give you autonomy without necessarily placing you in a leadership role, Moses says, such as teaching, research, or sales. "The new work world is very elastic.... A lot more people are desiring a more egalitarian workplace - people see themselves as being in a collegial relationship even if they have a boss."