Monday, 25 November 2013

Autocratic people dampen group collaboration... when the group lets them

New research suggests that formal leaders with a strong sense of personal power have a negative impact on the performance of their team. The work by Leigh Tost and colleagues outlines how feeling powerful leads to a sense of entitlement within group discussions that can crowd out other voices and lead to less valuable information-sharing. This happens only when the powerful-feeling person has a formal leadership role; if they don’t, other group members don't allow the domination and therefore healthy information transfer is maintained.

The research is based on a trio of experimental studies with a total of 400 university students, gathered into groups of between three and six to tackle business simulations and problem-solving tasks. The tasks favoured information sharing. For example, in one task, briefings containing different information were given to each participant, such that the right decision could only be reached if participants combined what they knew. This made it crucial that all group members were involved in discussions.

In an initial study, certain teams were placed in a condition where, before the task began, one member privately wrote about a past situation where they felt powerful. This is a standard way to induce feelings of power, and manipulation checks showed these were successful, compared to a control involving writing about a recent neutral activity. When individuals in this power condition were also given formal authority - right down to a name tag saying 'leader' - they were perceived by other team members as talking disproportionately during the discussion. Team members also rated these discussions as poorer in terms of openness towards different perspectives, and these factors contributed to poorer performance at the task overall. Yet a second study showed that  the power induction task had no effect on discussion or on task performance for teams that had no formal leaders.

This study found that participants who took the power induction tended to display a more autocratic communication style, characterised by wanting to impose discipline or take control. This was true regardless of whether they had a leadership position. But they only influenced the group dynamics measured – speaking time and the climate of openness – when they had this leadership role.

Without this data, we might have imagined an additive effect: that feelings of power would make a person want to take control, that formal authority would do the same, and that when the two come together the person’s controlling influence on the group would be at their greatest. But in fact formal leadership didn't make those who felt powerful any more autocratic; instead, formal leadership affected the rest of the group, such that they deferred to a controlling person instead of resisting them. Formal leadership doesn't change the psychological state of the leader, it changes the reactions of the led.

The theoretical explanation for why we treat others differently when we feel powerful is that the state leads us to objectify others and see them as less useful. Why should I listen to them when their opinions don't matter and they have nothing important to tell me? Another study investigated this by providing formal leaders in one condition with an additional instruction, suggesting that  “everyone has something unique to contribute in this task” and advising them to make best use of it.  When this instruction was in place, formal leaders didn't speak more or limit openness when they felt powerful, and their teams performed as well as for formal leaders without the power manipulation. So this suggests a potential mechanism to counter the stifling effect of power, by presenting open communication as being in the leader's self interest.

Tost and her colleagues conclude that “leaders’ subjective experience of power increases their attempts to dominate team interactions,” which others are more likely to defer to, leading to less-than-optimal outcomes. Leaders whose roles naturally provide high subjective experience of power, such as those in highly hierarchical organisations, could focus on cultivating openness to the perspectives of others, possibly by reflecting on the value that team members provide to discussion. Similarly, we can break the habits of deference to leaders by encouraging healthy dissent and the sharing of opinions amongst team members.

ResearchBlogging.orgLeigh Plunkett Tost, Francesca Gino, & Richard P. Larrick (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

Further reading:
Halevy, N., Chou, E. Y., & Galinsky, A. D. 2011. A functional model of hierarchy: Why, how, and when vertical differentiation enhances group performance.
Organizational Psychology Review, 1: 32–52.


  1. Painfully interesting. Would reminding potential dominators of past failures help productivity or would it be more effective to send them out for coffee?

  2. Hi Andrea,
    That sounds like a plausible strategy! It calls to mind another piece of research we covered relatively recently, suggesting that we are more likely to take advice when we feel negative inward-focused emotions such as shame.
    As for coffee, it might depend on how good the coffee is ;)