Powerful People Underperform When They Work Together
All too commonly, we see groups of leaders fail to accomplish their goals — legislators who cannot agree on a bill, heads of state who cannot broker meaningful peace deals, or boards of directors who make disastrous decisions for their companies. Why do powerful people, when working together, fail as often as they do?
This question is particularly vexing because researchers have long found power to boost individual performance in a variety of ways. When people work alone, feeling powerful helps them process information more effectively, think more creatively, and focus for longer stretches of time. If power enhances individual performance, then by extension one would assume that groups comprising high-power individuals would perform particularly well. But our research found the opposite: power hampers the ability of leaders to work with other leaders.
In a series of experiments, we brought more than a thousand participants — students and executives — into our laboratory and videotaped their behavior as they worked on a variety of tasks on their own or in groups. The tasks were designed to mimic those that leaders might face in their day-to-day work: some tasks tested creativity and persistence while others tested decision-making and the ability to reach agreement in complex negotiations.
In one experiment, we randomly assigned students to the roles of either a leader, worker, or a control condition. In the first phase of the experiment, each leader was given power over a worker — evaluating the worker’s performance and deciding how much money the worker would receive for completing a task. Control participants simply worked together as peers with equal power. In the next phase of the experiment, we reorganized participants into groups of three and had them work on a creativity task in which they designed a new product. Leaders worked with leaders, workers with workers, and control participants with other control participants. Which groups were the most creative? Independent judges rated groups of leaders to be the least creative of all groups. Their product ideas were the least innovative and the most uninspired. Particularly striking is that this effect emerged even though power makes people more creative when working alone.
This pattern emerged consistently across studies. 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.
In another study, we brought executives into the laboratory and assigned them to groups of four, based on their actual power in their organization. The four most powerful executives were assigned to the first group, the next four most powerful executives to the second group, and so on. This time we had the executives take part in a negotiation where they were tasked with reaching agreement on which of four candidates 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. In contrast 86% of groups comprising the least powerful executives reached agreement.
Why did groups of leaders fail so consistently? Videotapes of the group members’ interactions revealed some fascinating answers. Across studies, groups of leaders performed worse in part because their members fought over who should have higher status than others in the group — who should get to call the shots, who should have more influence over the group’s decisions, and who should command more respect than others. In essence, leaders fought over who should be “top dog” in the group, and this conflict over status harmed their ability to work together effectively.
Videotapes also showed that groups of leaders were less focused on the task and shared information less effectively with each other than did members of other groups. Again, this pattern is particularly ironic because power tends to make people more task-focused and efficient when working on tasks alone. When working together therefore, leaders’ status concerns — be they jockeying for position or avoiding the potential loss of face that might result from sharing ideas that could be judged harshly — appears to distract them from the task at hand.
So while the possession and experience of power can make leaders more capable than others on individual tasks, that same power appears to undermine their ability to get along and work with other leaders on collaborative tasks. Interaction among leaders who are accustomed to possessing power is vulnerable to conflict and miscommunication, which undermines their collective performance.