How to Be an Effective Group Leader

Why Dominating Leaders Kill Teams

Dominating leaders tend to stifle creative ideas that might otherwise emerge from group discussions thus making the teams less productive.

Francesca Gino is an Associate Professor in the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School.  In the November 13, 2013 edition for “Working Knowledge” published by the Harvard Business School, Michael Blanding discusses Professor Gino’s series of studies in which she and her colleagues, Leigh Plunkett Tost of the University of Michigan and Richard P. Larrick of Duke University found that when leaders are focused on their own sense of power, they can hurt the performance of their teams—but with an important catch. The effects only occur when leaders are actually in a position of power.

Usually when we think about groups, we think that a strong leader naturally improves the functioning of the team. Professors Gino, Tost and Larrick explore this in depth in their article “When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance”. In their work they differentiate between a “subjective sense of power,” that is, when someone thinks they have control over others, and actual power, when someone has formal authority over compensation, promotions, how resources are allocated or how decisions are made. Actual power and as sense of power often go hand in hand, but not always.

Sometimes in a group situation without a formal leader, a leadership role can be assumed by a person who believes he or she has superior knowledge or skills. The researchers found that in cases when someone felt powerful but was not recognized as being in a position of authority, team members were able to override that person’s domination of the conversation and add their own input.

As I would expect, they found that in the best performing groups, the leader orchestrates the conversation, and gets everyone talking. In other words, strong leaders can and do improve team performance when they go into a situation with a sense of humility about their own relative power.

On the other end of the spectrum, poor performing teams were dominated by a leader who made his power known, controlling the conversation and stifling input from the non-leader members of the group.

In conclusion, Professors Gino, Tost and Larrick suggest there is a powerful opportunity to improve performance just by making leaders aware of the dangers of hogging airtime in a discussion.

“I want to believe that oftentimes we behave the way we do because we are not aware of the effects of our actions,” says Gino. “Bringing this type of awareness to leaders walking into group decision-making situations could set up a different process whereby they benefit from what others have to offer.”

They further conclude that being aware of the negative effects generated by an overpowering leader can make non-leaders feel more empowered to assert their own point of view—whether or not the person dominating the conversation is a formal leader.  I believe that this requires the non-leaders to trust that the leader with power will not exercise that power against them.

It is no surprise to me that getting leaders to listen to others and to facilitate a productive group discussion is powerful indeed.

Read the complete article, here.