Put a bunch of powerful people together and sit back and watch them meet their goals with ease. Indeed, if mathematics alone was responsible for the outcome, it would make sense that a powerful person times two, 10, or more should exponentially increase the group’s chances of success. But it doesn’t always work that way.
As Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson of the University of California’s Haas School of Business ask in Harvard Business Review, why do powerful people, when working together, fail as often as they do?
In a new paper published for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, titled "Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance," Hildreth and Anderson examine group dynamics among leaders to determine if failure is dictated by the fact that each has become accustomed to having a certain amount of power among their respective reports.
The researchers note that this is still counterintuitive because studies have shown that when an individual has power, it helps boost their productivity in a variety of ways, from processing information and being more goal-oriented to thinking creatively and staying on task.
"Above and beyond having talented individuals, a group’s performance depends on whether its members cooperate with each other, communicate effectively, and put selfish interests aside for the good of the collective," the researchers write in their paper. "Merely having superior talent is not enough for groups to be effective. Their members must also work together productively."
As such, their experiments revealed the opposite: Power can have a negative effect on group performance.
While previous research has suggested that power can lead an individual to feel overconfident, rude, and greedy to the point that the leader would take credit for the contributions of others, the findings have been focused on collective group power rather than studying groups made up of individuals with power.
To test their theory, the researchers conducted a series of four experiments collectively involving over 1,000 participants (a pool that included both students and executives) who came into the research lab and were videotaped while working on tasks individually or in groups. Although the tasks were designed to emulate real work, some tested creativity, while others challenged the groups' ability to reach consensus in negotiations.
For example, in one experiment, groups of two were tasked with building the tallest tower they could out of gumdrops and toothpicks in five minutes. The "leader" was then asked to evaluate their partner’s performance. In another experiment, groups of three—either all leaders, all low-power individuals, or all the neutral control group—were tasked with inventing a new organization and outlining its strategy.
A group of independent judges then evaluated the working groups. In addition to the leaders having more conflicts as they worked together, the judges rated them to be the least creative, and their ideas didn’t rate as innovative or inspired as the lower-power or neutral control groups.
The researchers found that this trend came out across all their studies. They write: "When more powerful individuals worked alone or on tasks that required less coordination with others, they performed better than anyone else; but when they worked together on tasks that required more coordination with others, those same powerful individuals performed worse than others."
Another study had executives ranked based on their actual status in their respective organizations and grouped by fours. They were then told to negotiate to reach an agreement on which of the four should be hired for a senior management position. "Again, we found that groups of the most powerful executives underperformed relative to groups of less powerful executives: only 46% of groups comprising the most powerful executives reached agreement," they wrote, adding, "86% of groups comprising the least powerful executives reached agreement.
Videotapes of the interactions showed two reasons why the power-packed groups underperformed consistently. One was that they spent too much time fighting over who should have higher status and be the decision maker. This tussle to claim the role of top dog hampered their ability to work together as a team.
The other reason was that while each was exerting a power play, they weren’t able to share information effectively or capable of maintaining focus on the goal. The researchers note that this, too, is a surprise, because power has been shown to make an individual more focused and efficient when they work alone.
Identifying these conflicts isn’t enough. The researchers contend that they can also help create intervention strategies to improve team performance.
To reduce the threat of conflict arising from jockeying for status, they suggest that groups of high-power individuals be given opportunities for mutual recognition and voicing their opinions. "Formal information-sharing strategies might be implemented so that members of these groups are cognizant of all of the relevant information before making decisions, thus mitigating the risk that relevant information is not shared," they write in the paper. The researchers also recommend structuring meeting time and formalizing decision processes. "This may help these groups focus more on the task at hand than on other matters."