Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

New Research Finds Overbearing Leaders Can Hurt Their Team's Performance

Professor Rick Larrick explores when a leader’s strong personality gets in the way

October 14, 2013

We've all been in a meeting before when one person seems to dominate the conversation without letting others speak. What happens when that person is the boss?

That's exactly what Duke University Fuqua School of Business Professor Rick Larrick wanted to find out, along with Leigh Plunkett Tost of the University of Michigan and Francesca Gino of Harvard University. Their findings "When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance" are published in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

The group conducted three studies which showed when a leader is reminded of power over others he or she is less effective in facilitating conversations among a team. In turn, that team is less productive and creative.

Larrick explains more in a Fuqua Q and A.

1. For many people, this idea that a dominant leader could actually hurt a team is counterintuitive. After all, don't we expect leaders to take charge? What specifically, did your research find makes a leader overbearing to the point they are ineffective?

There are certainly situations in which followers expect leaders to be in control.  During a time of crisis, followers look to leaders to provide direction and a feeling of confidence.  In general, directive leadership is useful if everyone knows his or her part and simply needs to execute on a job.

Other tasks benefit from different perspectives. Most complex tasks can't be solved by one person, but require input from multiple viewpoints.  Organizations exist in large part to bring together people with different experiences and training to solve complex problems. These are the situations that are hurt by a dominating leader.  If the leader spends an inordinate amount of time offering his or her own view, there is no opportunity to hear the views of others. 

Our studies examined group tasks that benefited from sharing diverse perspectives.  We then varied whether groups had a designated leader and if so, what happened when that leader was reminded of past situations of exerting power over others.  This "reminding" task has become a popular tool in psychological research for studying the momentary influence of feelings of power (and is technically called "priming").  It mirrors feelings that arise in everyday organizational life.   For example, there is a boost in feeling powerful after certain key events, such as promotions, the successful execution of projects, and so on. These are potentially dangerous moments.  

2. What is the danger of a leader dominating a conversation among his or her team?

The problem is that people who are in a power mindset don't stop to ask what others know and think.  And this is facilitated by formal roles and titles, because it means that those in a less powerful position tend to defer to the person with the higher position. 

One of my motivations for doing this research was observing my own behavior with Ph.D. students I was advising. If they came to my office to discuss research ideas, I felt entitled-and even obligated-to keep the conversation going.  And students tended to let me.  But I would often think at the end of an hour long "discussion" that because I hadn't paused more to encourage the student to jump in, I hadn't learned anything in the discussion.  I was no more knowledgeable at the end of the hour than at the beginning. This seemed like a missed opportunity to learn new things!  And our joint creativity suffered as well.

3.  How should a leader make sure he or she is encouraging the thoughts of others in a meeting without letting the conversation get off track?

There are a number of procedures for ensuring equal participation, such as having a norm of going around the table.  But some of the best cures happen long before a group meeting: They happen if leaders build trust and reduce barriers with followers in more casual everyday interactions.  That will encourage followers to speak up.  At the same time, the leader needs to avoid slipping into the habit of "filling the silence" or simply seeking confirmation for whatever they are initially thinking.  They need to stop, formulate an open question, and then allow others the space to weigh in with their own thoughts.

4. Does the research suggest that teams perform better without a leader or is a leader important to the team as long as he or she is including other perspectives?

In some cases, we created leaderless teams and they did perform better than teams being run by a leader with a power mindset. However the best teams had leaders who were not reminded of power. This makes sense in that leaders do play an essential role by providing structure to teams, but the structure has to ensure participation.  A facilitative leader is one way to create this desirable structure; it can also emerge in a leaderless team if someone steps up as leader or if a self-organizing team adopts it as their norm. 

5. What do you hope companies take away from this research in establishing effective leaders?

I think the most important take away is for managers who are new to positions to be careful.  With the rush that comes with having control, it is easy for a manager to hog the floor-even feel obligated to play this role.  Recognizing this tendency is key to including the viewpoints of all team members.