Strategy & Leadership

When Leaders Speak… All Others Are Silent!

December 22, 2015

In a dynamic and complex environment, individuals will rarely have access to all the relevant knowledge necessary to make a decision. Thus teams are formed. Given the prevalence of teams in today’s organizations, we need to make sure that they are effective vehicles for organizational learning and decision-making.

Power inequality in teamwork 

One particular area of concerns is how the degree of hierarchy in a team affects team performance. For example, a study of team performance in hospital operating rooms revealed that high levels of power inequality were negatively associated with team learning (Edmondson 2003). This negative relationship is observed when formal leaders experience a heightened subjective sense of power. As a consequence, they will tend to dominate group discussions. This, in turn, will lead other team members to perceive that their perspectives are not valued. 

Individuals experiencing a heightened sense of power may verbally dominate interpersonal discussions thereby reducing the level of open communication within the team. In addition, they will often devalue the perspectives, opinions and contributions of other team members. However, while individuals with a high subjective sense of power tend to dominate team discussions, they may be able to do so only if other team members permit it. Most likely, team members will ‘accept’ verbal dominance only when the team leader holds a position of formal authority. Alternatively then, if someone without a position of formal leadership is attempting to dominate the conversation, other team members may be less likely to acquiesce.  

The above hypotheses were tested by Tost, Gino and Larrick (2013) in a series of decision-making simulations. All simulations involved tasks that required collaborative problem-solving. One of the authors’ studies involves the well-known Everest simulation game. Participants were randomly assigned to one of five roles in a five person team. The individual who was assigned the team leader role was also given a high power manipulation designed to elicit a heightened level of subjective feeling of power (1).

Formal leadership and team communication

The research findings confirmed the authors’ hypothesis about formal leadership and team communication. Formal leaders experiencing a heightened sense of power produces “… greater proportions of team talking from leaders, lower levels of open communication and consequently, diminished team performance” (p. 1477). High-power leader tended to dominate the discussion, talking 33 percent of the time. Neutral-power leaders talked almost half as much, only 19 percent.

Later studies revealed that these negative effects only occur when leaders were in a position of formal power. That is, team members cooperated and acquiesced to leaders’ dominating behaviors when these leaders had a formal position of authority. Conversely, when a team leader felt powerful but was not recognized as being in a formal position of authority, team members were able to override that person's verbal dominance and add their own input to the conversation.

On a positive note, none of the negative effects on team communication and team performance emerged when leaders were actively reminded that all team members had the potential to contribute. Thus, when leaders were aware of the potential contribution of other team members as well as the importance of encouraging others to contribute, team members will actively participate in the conversation thereby increasing team performance. 

Take Aways

  1. Formal leaders should be aware that their formal power can have a negative impact on team communication and team performance. When formal leaders speak, others will often go silent.
  2. Formal leaders should engage in practices where they explicitly invite all team members to contribute to the conversation.

Bibliography

Edmondson, A. (2003) “Speaking up on the operating room: How team leaders promote learning in interdisciplinary action teams”, Journal of Management, Vol. 40, pp. 1419-1452.

Tost, L.P., F. Gino & R.P. Larrick (2013) ‘When power makes others speechless: The negative impact of leader power on team performance’, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 56, No. 5, pp. 1465-1486

 

(1) - The high power manipulation was as follows: “Please think of a time when you had power over someone. By power, we mean a situation in which you controlled the ability of another person or persons to get something they wanted, or were in a position to evaluate those individuals. Please write 4-5 sentences describing this situation in which you had power” (Tott, Gino & Larrick, 2013, p. 1471).

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