Powerful Leaders Can Hinder Team Performance

When we think of powerful leaders, we often imagine people who can get others to do what they wish. After all, power and leadership, by definition, involve the capacity to control or influence the behavior of others. However, this study (Tost, Gino, & Larrick, 2013) shows that having more powerful leaders can actually harm team performance.

Consider two reasons this could be the case. First, leaders who overestimate their own power or who depend too much on their personal power may be less understanding of others’ perspectives, being likely to stereotype, less likely to listen, and more likely to objectify others. Alternately, true collaboration, which involves creative problem solving, idea sharing, and blending of team member viewpoints, happens over time and cannot be commanded as a simple exercise of a leader’s power. These reasons provide a potential explanation as to why too powerful a leader can harm team performance.

POWERFUL LEADERS AND TEAM COMMUNICATION

This study had several key findings. First, formal leaders (those who hold a specific role in a social hierarchy) who perceive themselves as having a high sense of power spend more time talking in team meetings. As a result, their teams communicate less and performance more poorly than teams whose leaders perceive their own power neutrally. Specifically, formal leads who feel powerful talk more, which discourages open team communication and hinders team performance.

Interestingly, these trends only appear among formal leaders who hold positions of authority, and their level of authority affects these relationships. Explicitly, the more authority a leader holds, the more deference they receive from their team members, and the more they tend to talk in group meetings. When leaders monopolize the floor in meetings, open team communication withers. Unfortunately for these powerful leaders and their teams, open team communication directly influences team performance. So, by talking and not listening, these leaders measurably reduce their teams’ effectiveness. Fortunately, there is a way to correct this troubling behavior. The study found that these effects were eliminated when a leader was reminded that their team members could also make important contributions.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

To help decrease the problem of powerful leaders hindering team performance, the authors suggest that organizations should:

  1. Encourage flat organizational structures and egalitarian cultures, which lessen leaders’ perceptions of their own power.
  2. Train leaders to be open in their authority and to encourage team communication.
  3. Promote practices and policies designed to remind leaders of the potential for important contributions from their followers.
  4. Urge members to stand up to leaders who take a dominating approach during social interactions.

These steps could help discourage leaders from using their power in ways that are counterproductive, thus resulting in happier, more productive teams.

 

Tost, L. P., Gino, F., & Larrick, R. P. (2013). When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance. Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1465-1486. doi:10.5465/amj.2011.0180