Strong and overpowering leaders threaten the ability of their teams to solve problems. This is the conclusion of fascinating new research into the effects of power in teams.
The research, conducted by Tost, Gino, and Larrick, (Academy of Management Journal) examined the impact of leaders’ perceptions of power on the dynamics of their teams and on their performance on a variety of tasks.
The Myth of the Macho Manager
The traditional hierarchical notion that most of us grew up with is that power is useful in driving performance. Power creates clarity, alignment, and motivation. But the authors of this study argue that in our innovation economy, where tasks require creative problem solving, information sharing, and collaboration, performance must be cultivated rather than coerced.
The authors hypothesized that in team tasks requiring creative problem solving, greater perceived power on the part of the leader would have negative impacts on the team dynamic and would erode the quality of team solutions.
That’s exactly what they found. Put plainly, when a team leader feels powerful, he tends to dominate team discussions, which causes team members to feel less valued, which causes them to stay quiet and give in, which results in poor quality decisions and solutions. (The research cleverly measured each link in this chain.)
Fortunately, this very costly team dynamic is also very fragile. When team members ignored the signals that the team leader was closed-minded and contributed anyway, the teams were protected. Second, in cases where team leaders were reminded of the value of open discussion and diverse perspectives, their dominance was reduced and the negative impact on problem solving was also reversed.
Warning to Team Leaders
There is a growing body of research that shows that power changes you—it changes your thoughts and your behaviors. Perceptions of power can cause you to objectify your team members, to be less effective at empathizing, to stereotype people and their contributions, and to be less likely to listen to the contributions of your team. All of that suggests that getting too big for your britches can reduce your ability to effectively facilitate your team.
If you lead a team that is responsible for developing innovative solutions, your role is not to dictate answers. Instead, your role as a team leader is to orchestrate the diverse expertise and perspectives of your team. Try the following:
- Be explicit with your team that you view your role not as the expert to solve problems, but as the one who facilitates the team in solving problems together.
- Pay attention to the percentage of time that you talk in meetings. Get that percentage down to a more equitable share.
- Speak less authoritatively and use questions to show you welcome and value other points of view.
- Invite team members to poke holes and to improve the working models of the team. Ask “How else could we think about this?” “What are we missing?”
- Thank team members both publically and privately for their contributions to a discussion-particularly when they share a less popular point of view.
If your role as a team leader is to foster creativity, stop trying to drive innovation and start creating a dynamic that will allow it to grow.
I wrote about this research from the team member perspective too. Check out “Don’t let your voice be silenced by your boss” on my Psychology Today blog. You can find it here.