Power Disparity on Teams: Now We Know When It Works

Topic(s): leadership, performance, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: When Does Power Disparity Help or Hurt Group Performance?
Authors: M. Tarakci, L.L. Greer, P.J.F. Groenen
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Power is what makes people obey even when they don’t want to, and power disparity on teams refers to a situation in which power is not evenly distributed among team members. Imagine a situation in which a powerful and experienced executive works with several junior associates on a project. This might be called high power disparity, because one person will have all of the power.

Unfortunately, years of research has not been able to conclusively determine if power disparity is good or bad for performance. If you think about it, you can probably imagine it either way. On one hand, when power is concentrated in either one person or very few people, there may be more structure, order, and role clarity. All team members will be told what to do, and there will likely be no confusion about who is supposed to do what. This can lead to improved performance. But on the other hand, wouldn’t situations like this be more subject to political positioning and competition? There may also be a lack of sharing, helping, and learning. These things can lead to worse performance. In fact, research has supported all of these outcomes. So which way is it? Is power disparity good or bad? New research (Tarakci, Greer, & Groenen, 2015) attempts to solve this conflict.

COMPETENCE AND POWER DISPARITY

The researchers conducted three separate experiments that helped them develop and confirm their hypothesis. What they found is that power disparity can indeed be good or bad, depending on the specific situation. The key factor is competence, or how well people can use their expertise to succeed at a task. When the most powerful person in the group is also the most competent, then power disparity helps performance. The authors say that a highly competent person is able to successfully steer the group in the right direction, and when that person is also powerful, we can be sure that the team will end up listening to that person.

But what about a situation when the most powerful person is not the most competent person on the team? Here the researchers found that power disparity will hurt team performance. It’s what happens when everyone is forced to obey the person who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. That person will likely lead the group down the wrong path, and subsequently squash any efforts by others to correct things. Meanwhile, the competent person (who probably has the best solution) is instead marginalized and perhaps ignored.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This finding helps answer a long-lasting dilemma in team research, and provides several important implications for the workplace. The authors make three recommendations. First, any organization or manager who wants to use a power disparity arrangement to coordinate work needs to be sure that they give the power to the most competent person. Second, it is important for teams to fluidly assign power to the team members who have the greatest expertise and competence on a given task. The most competent person may not be the same in all cases. Therefore, it is important for managers and team members to learn and acknowledge the strengths of each team member, and adjust power arrangements accordingly. Finally, if teams are unable to fluidly shift power to the most competent members, a more even, low power-disparity arrangement may be the best bet. Basically, it’s better for nobody to truly be in charge than it is for the incompetent person to be in charge.