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Does power foster effective leadership? Study suggests not

September 30, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

Do teams work better with strong leadership or without it? This may seem an odd question, given the importance that is widely ascribed to leadership and the adulation elicited by such high-powered corporate leaders as Jack Welch, Larry Ellison and the late Steve Jobs. Yet, it is a much debated issue among students of management, with considerable research finding that groups organized hierarchically function worse than those that have a flat structure.

Now a scholarly paper brings a new measure of clarity to the issue with a conclusion that recalls a popular admonition: Don't let it go to your head.

The paper in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal finds that team leadership becomes problematic when "the subjective experience of power increases formal leaders' tendencies to verbally dominate social interactions and diminishes perceptions of authority openness, which in turn diminishes team performance...It may be necessary for organizations and groups to take action to minimize the negative effects of formal leaders' psychological experiences of power on team performance."

Comments Leigh Plunkett Tost of the University of Michigan, a co-author of the paper with Francesca Gino of Harvard and Richard P. Larrick of Duke, "Having a formal team leader isn't a problem per se; it  becomes one, though, when that leader equates leadership with power and proceeds to dominate team interactions while discounting the potential of other team members to contribute."

She adds: "It is widely thought that a penchant for power is basic to effective leadership. Our findings suggest otherwise."

To sort out how the interaction of these various factors affects team performance the professors carried out three experimental studies with students and smaller numbers of assorted volunteers. A common feature of all three was to prime randomly chosen team leaders to feel a heightened sense of power, something that was done by asking them to 1) think about a time when they had power over someone, 2) describe the situation in four or five sentences, and 3) write briefly on how that experience could help them as team leaders.

In one study, 106 participants were divided among 20 teams, all with formally designated leaders, half of whom received the power prime and half of whom did not. Teams engaged in a Web-based simulation of a Mount Everest expedition that was developed at Harvard Business School to reinforce student learning in team dynamics and leadership. In the course of the 80-minute simulation, team leaders who received the power prime accounted on average for about 33% of the talking in their teams, compared with 19% for non-primed leaders, and their teams achieved a significantly lower level of the exercise's goals. "By doing most of the talking," the professors conclude, "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."

In a second experiment,144 participants, divided into 48 three-person teams, engaged in a 20-minute exercise to solve a murder mystery in which most clues were provided to the entire teams but a vital few were distributed to individual members. One member in each team, chosen at random, was asked to perform a writing task -- either the power prime similar to that of study 1 or a neutral prime, which asked them simply to write about shopping for groceries. Half of those asked to perform the writing tasks received name tags labeled "leader," while all other participants in the study simply wore tags with their names but no leadership designation. Thus, one fourth of the teams had a designated leader who had received the power prime; one fourth had a designated leader who had received the neutral prime; one fourth had no designated leader but one member who had received the power prime; and the remaining fourth had no designated leader and one member who had received the neutral prime.

When teams did not have a designated leader, the member who had performed the writing task accounted for about one third of the talking, whether primed for power or primed neutrally (although teammates judged the power-primed members to have exhibited "autocratic tendencies"), and both kinds of teams had a greater than 50% success in solving the mystery. When teams did have a designated leader, he or she accounted for significantly more talking in the power condition than otherwise (42% to 33%), and far more of the neutral leaders' teams solved the mystery (75% to 25%). "While subjective feelings of power increased leaders' autocratic tendencies," the study notes, "the leader's formal role (or lack thereof) determined team members' willingness to acquiesce to this dominant behavior." Put slightly differently, "Subjective power increases dominance but formal authority does not; instead, formal authority simply determines how others react to attempts at dominance."

The most dramatic difference in team performance emerged in a third experimental study, involving 38 four-person teams. Teams were asked to carry out an exercise in which reaching the right decision on a personnel issue depended on each group's ability to share information. Half the designated team leaders were power-primed and half were not; in addition, half the leaders were reminded that all team members had the potential to contribute to the team's success, and half were not reminded. The result? Not a single one of the teams with leaders who were both power-primed and unprodded about their teammates reached the right decision; in striking contrast, more than half the remaining 29 teams did. As the professors explain "Feelings of power produce a tendency to devalue the perspectives, opinions, and contributions of others...When leaders were reminded that all team members had the potential to contribute to the team's success, these effects did not emerge."

How to contend with the twin subversions of enlightened leadership that the study identifies -- power dependence and devaluing of subordinates? The professors offer several options. One is "maintaining a relatively flat organizational structure and egalitarian culture." Another is to "train leaders to cultivate high levels of authority openness and to encourage open team communications." A third is to "institute practices and policies that serve to remind leaders of the important contributions their subordinates have the capacity to make." And a fourth (perhaps most difficult) is "to encourage all members to question the legitimacy of formal leaders who take a dominating approach to social interactions."

The paper, "When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance," is in the October/November issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 19,000 members in 110 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives,  and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

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