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Powerful leaders make worse decisions by dominating their colleagues into silence says new LSE study

Strong leaders may also be worse managers a new study has found because they give off such an impression of power that their colleagues' opinions are stifled.

While it is important for leaders to exude authority and competence, the evidence suggests that appearing too powerful will inhibit their team members from expressing an opinion. This harms the ability to make good decisions by excluding arguments and evidence from the decision-making process.

The study's authors point out that to dominate the decision-making process may be damaging in a business world loaded with specialist and technical information where team members often know more about a specific subject than their leader and where participative decision-making is accepted as more effective.

Dr Connson Locke, from LSE's Department of Management, will present the paper's findings at the Academy of Management conference in Montreal on Monday 9 August.  It is co-authored by Cameron Anderson from the University of California.

The study, entitled The Downside of Looking Like a Leader, involved two laboratory experiments. In the first, participants were allocated roles as supervisors or subordinates and worked in matching pairs to make a decision. Observers measured and analysed their behaviour to see to what extent the 'supervisor' used the body-language of command and how much the 'subordinate' contributed to their discussion. The results showed that the more the supervisor adopted a powerful demeanour, the smaller the subordinate's contribution. The results were the same regardless of the gender of the two participants.

In the second experiment, a researcher  played the role of leader, working with 'subordinates' in a joint exercise to pick one of three candidates for a job based on a written profile of each one. The researcher would always argue for the least-qualified candidate for the role, to see if the subordinate (who was unaware of the leader's role as part of the research team) would agree with the decision to choose the least-qualified candidate. When the researcher adopted a powerful demeanour, 69 per cent of subordinates agreed. When he did not, only 42 per cent agreed.

However the research also suggested that the reluctance of subordinates to disagree was based not on fear but on an assumption of competence on the part of their leader.

Dr Locke said: 'There is a clear downside to appearing too much of a leader because it inhibits employee voice in participative decision-making. Even when a leader invites his or her team to speak up they may still hesitate because they react to nonverbal expressions of power such as posture, frequent eye-contact and a louder voice –behaviours which leaders are encouraged to use because they contribute to an image of competence and confidence.

'In practical terms, leaders need to know that simply asking their team members for input may not be enough to get it. Because executive training often teaches the importance of a powerful demeanour, managers may not be aware that there is also a drawback to behaving in this way. More research may reveal a solution to this dilemma and help leaders find new techniques to both take command and make the most informed decisions.'

The Downside of Looking like a Leader: leaders' powerful demeanor stifles follower voice in participative decision-making  [PDF]


For more information, or to request a copy of the paper, contact:

Dr Connson Locke c.c.locke@lse.ac.uk 

LSE Press Office pressoffice@lse.ac.uk +44 (0)207 955 7060