By Steve Kelman

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The secret danger of strong leaders

Shutterstock image: executive data storm.

A year or two ago I wrote a column discussing an article I had read in an academic journal that had appeared over a year earlier but that I was just getting around to reading. Let's just say the old phrase that "there's nothing more stale than yesterday's news" does not apply to research in scholarly journals, which makes a claim, if not to timelessness, at least to a shelf life of years or decades. I often let the journals on organization studies and public management accumulate in my office for a while, until I become too embarrassed and start to plow through them in a burst of methodical virtue.

So no apologies for discussing in this column an article appearing in the October 2013 issue of Academy of Management Journal. It's called "When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance," and was authored by Leigh Tost, Francesca Gino and Richard Larrick, all of business schools at, respectively, Michigan, Harvard and Duke. The article presents fascinating findings with practical significance for leaders or supervisors in organizations, government as well as private, especially when they are leading a team that needs to produce a solution to a problem or even a work product together.

There has been a slew of very intriguing research over the last decade on effects on a person's behavior of giving that person a feeling of power. In one famous lab experiment, subjects were placed around a table with a big plate of chocolate chip cookies in the center, supposedly waiting for the experiment to begin. (Actually, the experiment was the waiting itself.) Before the experiment, half the subjects had been "primed" to feel powerful by being asked to write about a situation where they had personally felt powerful, while the other half were primed to feel powerless by asking them to write about a situation of that type. Compared to those primed to feel powerless, those feeling powerful took more cookies, and were less likely to clean crumbs off the table. (They also were more likely to chew with their mouths open!)

The power experiments generally show that when people feel powerful they talk more in a group and devalue opinions of other members. This of course risks creating poorer information sharing and poorer performance.

This paper goes beyond those earlier findings in two respects. First, in one of the experiments the authors look at whether priming a team leader to feel subjectively powerful increased negative effects on team performance. The answer was yes: team performance (measured in a task requiring group cooperation whose results could be objectively ascertained) for leaders primed to feel powerful was lower than for teams whose leaders weren't.

In a second experiment, half of each group were explicitly told before the experiment that "Each member of the team is representing a different role.… Given every team member's unique perspective, obtaining everyone's views of the situation can be critical in reaching a good decision." Here the researchers found that these instructions cancelled out the bad effects of powerful-leader feelings on team performance.

Quite an amazing finding, and one with real practical lessons for team managers (and those who manage them). When leaders feel subjectively powerful, it can create problems for teamwork. But there are interventions that can counteract those bad effects. Managers, the ball is in your court!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 31, 2014 at 8:47 AM


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