Power Corrupts: Overbearing Leaders Hurt Team Performance, Study Says

If you’re a boss who takes a command-and-control approach to leadership, you may be getting in the way of your team’s success, according to a recent management study.

Ford might have you believe that ‘and’ is better than ‘or’ in most instances:

But a new study published in the latest Academy of Management Journal [subscription required] makes the argument that bosses who have a large-and-in-charge attitude might be hurting their business—in a big way.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Duke University explored the differences in performance between teams led by people who tended to—or were primed by researchers to—equate leadership with power and teams led by leaders who felt less powerful.

As part of the study, researchers observed the dynamics of several meeting simulations led by leaders in the two categories. They found that the “powerful” leaders tended to dominate the discussion and were less likely to ask for others’ thoughts and opinions. Team leaders who exerted their dominance over a group accounted for, on average, about one-third of the talking in their team’s meetings, compared to just 19 percent for less powerful leaders.

“By doing most of the talking, powerful formal leaders conveyed a sense that they were not open to others’ input, and this dynamic produced a lower level of team performance, as measured by the team’s ability to reach their goals in the simulation,” the authors wrote.

“These types of performance problems are most likely to emerge when leaders let their power go to their heads,” Leigh Plunkett Tost, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a coauthor of the study, recently told MarketWatch. “They end up dominating the conversation, the teams don’t work as collectively, and they aren’t able to perform as well.”

This effect occurred only when the dominant person was the group’s formal leader. Team members who had not been designated the leader but attempted to dominate the meeting generally did not win other team members’ deference.

“Because these dynamics rely on the acquiescence of other team members to the leader’s dominant behavior, the effects only emerge when the leader holds a formal leadership position,” Tost said.

Teams without formal leaders and teams with leaders who displayed less power over the group actually performed better than teams with a dominant leader, researchers found.

Tost and the study’s coauthors, Francesca Gino of Harvard and Richard Larrick of Duke, recommended that companies restructure teams in a way that improves communication by promoting equal participation. This could involve changing the hierarchical structure or encouraging leaders to engage all members of the team in a meeting, they said.

“Feelings of power produce a tendency to devalue the perspectives, opinions, and contributions of others,” the authors wrote. “When leaders were reminded that all team members had the potential to contribute to the team’s success, these effects did not emerge.”

What tips do you have for engaging your entire team in meetings? Share them in the comments.


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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