We’ve all been there.
Those awful meetings where some bigwig hoovers up all the air in the room by talking nonstop. Those uncomfortable town halls led by a fresh CEO who, proud of his or her new role, is greeted with painful silence after eagerly trumpeting the company’s new strategy.
But that power dynamic doesn’t just create awkward dead air or frustrating monologues we all wish would end. It actually hurts performance, leading to worse communication and poorer decision-making. The culprit, find researchers in a new Academy of Management journal study, is hierarchical leaders who, due to specific contexts that make them feel more powerful, talk more than they should and don’t do enough to recognize the contributions of others.
In the paper, titled “When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance,” researchers from the University of Michigan,Harvard Business School and Duke University performed three experiments that required group problem-solving. In one, teams were assigned roles (leader, physician, photographer, etc.) in a Web-based simulation of climbing Mt. Everest, in which they had to make decisions about whether or not to try to reach the next camp. In another, teams were asked to solve a murder mystery that was unlikely to be solved unless they shared their clues equally. In the last, groups were asked to recommend the best chief financial officer candidate to a CEO. Again, the best candidate only became obvious when the teams shared the information each member had.
Through a variety of manipulations and experiments, the researchers found that when the teams had leaders with a formal title and these leaders were “primed” to feel particularly powerful, they tended to talk more, hurt communication and cause the team to make worse decisions. In the real world, such “priming” might be brought on by a recent promotion, closing a big sale or receiving a big bonus.
Interestingly, the study also found that when teams didn’t have a formal leader, they performed better than those run by leaders who were reminded of their power. The best performing teams, meanwhile, were those that had identified a specific leader but whose leader wasn’t “primed” to feel powerful. Another useful finding: Groups led by people who think of themselves as powerful perform far better when they’re simply reminded of how instrumental their team members are when making decisions.
The obvious takeaway for leaders is to just stop talking so much in meetings, and get more input from others. But the study should also remind organizations to mind that fine line between promoting great managers and watching all that power—or that sense of power, at least—go to their head.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.