Why Wimps Make Better Leaders

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 5:34 PM EST

Having a powerful boss can actually make it tougher to get work done, according to new research from Leigh Plunkett Tost, of the University of Washington, Francesca Gino, of Harvard University, and Richard P. Larrick of Duke University.

You'd think powerful bosses-assuming you get along with them okay-would be a boon, championing your team's ideas and clearing obstacles in your way. But several studies about power, and specifically about the way people act when they feel powerful, suggest that this might not be the case.

The psychological experience of power has been shown to make people:
Combine those behaviors, and you get someone who could be awful to work for.

Misery aside, the researchers wanted to determine if those behaviors actually hurt teams' productivity, or if they prevented powerful people from getting the information they needed to be effective leaders. To do this, they set up a series of experiments using small teams of students, one of whom was designated as the leader.

Some of the "leaders" were asked to recall an experience in which they had power over someone and to write a paragraph about it, while others were asked to recall and write about an experience in which someone else had power over them. It sounds hokey, but this type of exercise, called "priming," has actually been shown to help subjects mimic the psychological state they're asked to recall. (The control group wrote about a trip to a grocery store).

Wimpy Leaders Do Best
In one exercise, each team played an online game that simulated scaling Mount Everest. Only by working together could the players accurately gauge the weather, ration oxygen, and get anywhere close to the summit.
  • Teams led by high-power individuals (those who were asked to write about a 'powerful' experience) performed worse than those whose leaders were in the control group. The teams led by high-power individuals achieved 59% of their goals, while control leaders' teams achieved 76% of their goals.
  • High-power leaders were much more talkative, taking up 33% of the time with their yammering. Control leaders talked 19% of the time.
In another exercise, teams were supposed to pretend they were recommending a CFO candidate to a CEO. Each team member had different information about the candidates. Only by sharing information could they pick the best one.
  • Score one for anarchy. Teams with a high-power leader never chose the right person. Teams with no designated leader chose the right person 44% of the time.
  • Powerful people aren't hopeless. If everyone is told ahead of time that each person on the team is instrumental to achieving the best outcome, then the different types of teams all performed better. In this situation, the teams with high-power leaders did as well as anyone else, choosing the best CFO candidate 68% of the time.
Isn't it kind of scary that powerful leaders actually need to be reminded that everyone on their team matters? Have you run across managers who fit this description, and how did you handle them?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user Thomas R. Stegelmann
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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