The Problem With Hard-Charging Leaders

We admire executives for their ability to make tough decisions, but research shows that overly dominant leaders erode the workplace. The message: Be decisive, but don't do it alone. 

Decisiveness: I’m for it.

Leaders take on difficult roles because they’re expected to be firm and considered decisionmakers for their organizations. But there are distinctions to how leaders arrive at and express their decisions. And how they handle those decisions can have consequences.

In a recent article in Scientific American, Duke University Business School scholar Hemant Kakkar and London Business School scholar Niro Sivanathan shared findings from research they coauthored on how different leadership styles affect employees. “Dominant” leaders—those who behave authoritatively, with little outside input—tend to generate hypercompetitive, zero-sum mindsets among employees. 

Because of that, collaboration takes a hit as well. “If people feel they lack control over their tasks or that their job simply doesn’t involve cooperation, it’s no surprise they might hesitate to help others, regardless of their leader’s style,” the two wrote. A study of 249 workers in India bore out the point: Employees of dominant leaders tend to engage less in “helping behaviors.”

This is a particularly bad time for this kind of leadership, of course. During the Great Resignation, employees have been more motivated than ever to look elsewhere, whether it’s due to return-to-work policies, or poor communication, or workplace bias. A study from Gallup in April found that workplace engagement is declining for the first time in a decade: 32 percent of U.S. employees say they’re engaged at work, a dip from 36 percent in 2020.

If people feel they lack control over their tasks, it’s no surprise they might hesitate to help others.

The reasons for that drop are telling. According to Gallup’s report on the study, the engagement factors that are weakest have to do with whether employees “have clear expectations, the right materials and equipment, the opportunity to do what they do best every day, and a connection to the mission or purpose of their organization.” 

To put it another way, engagement is a matter of both resources and communication. And it’s likely that the disengagement stems from leadership being decisive but not transparent. There’s a reason why resources aren’t available; there’s a reason why people aren’t able to do the work they feel they’re best at. And people will tend to look at leadership as the reason why.

But decisiveness doesn’t have to mean dominance. As part of their research, Kakkar and Sivanathan make a distinction between dominant, my-way-or-the-highway leaders and “prestige” leadership, in which “the leader emphasized how much they valued others’ input and an egalitarian approach.”

If there were only two types of leaders—and an easy way to shift from one kind to the other—handling these kinds of challenges would be simple. But of course, leadership operates on a spectrum, filled with situations where leaders have to be decisive to settle straightforward challenges, and spend more time in listening mode for more complicated ones. (Recognizing which is which is an important skill too.)

To handle the engagement challenge, Gallup recommends a healthy amount of communication, in as many channels as possible. But beyond that, it prescribes that leaders behave consistently—that however they make decisions, it reflects the organization’s stated values. 

“Employees need to see the intended culture and values lived out daily,” stated the report. “It is important to listen to people and act based on employees’ work-life needs…. Employees can see the organization’s values lived out through decisions, which builds trust in leadership.” Firm decisions won’t necessarily please everybody. But decisions made with meaningful input and respect for the shared mission go a lot further than blunt dictates.

(AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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