There have been many articles and studies highlighting the unusually high levels of antisocial traits in those at the top of our organizations. A big part of this is that the higher you climb the corporate hierarchy, the less likely you are to get accurate and reliable feedback as to your behaviors and ability.
A recent study highlights the importance of ensuring that feedback flows not just down the organization but back up it too, especially if you want leaders to behave well and look out for the entire workforce.
The authors highlight how easy and tempting it is for leaders to ensure they’re looked after well at the expense of the wider workforce. After all, they have the power to determine how resources are distributed. The temptation for selfish behavior is considerable therefore.
The study found however, that despite the apparent narcissism that leaders often exhibit, they are just as sensitive to criticism as everyone else.
“Like all individuals, those with power desire to see themselves as moral and are motivated to be seen as fair, generous, and less self-interested by others,” the authors write.
The importance of candid feedback
The researchers tested whether candid feedback would be enough to prompt leaders to behave more fairly in order to ensure their image (if only to themselves) remained a positive one.
This was contrasted to a scenario where feedback was always positive or compliant, regardless of how unfair the behavior was.
The theory was tested by asking participants to play a game where resources had to be shared out. The game was played with three anonymous peers playing the role of subordinates over a computer and saw players trying to accumulate as many points as possible to try and win the game.
At the start of each game, participants received 100 points. The game allowed them to keep as many of these to themselves as they wished each round, with any points given up by each player then equally distributed between the group. At the end of each round, the subordinates provided feedback to the leaders on their level of fairness.
One group of ‘leaders’ received nothing but positive ratings, regardless of how unfair they had actually been. Another group received more candid feedback, with the best ratings given when points were distributed equally.
As you might expect, when players were given candid feedback, they subsequently behaved more selflessly, with those in the candid group being much fairer than those in the more compliant group. What’s more, when players were branded as unfair, they behaved much less selfishly in response to the feedback. The leaders in the compliant group however began to act more and more selfishly as the game progressed.
“These results suggest that powerholders use candid feedback from subordinates to regulate their behavior, with positive feedback functioning as a license to increase their share of the common resource and negative feedback triggering compensation for prior, more self-interested allocation behavior,” the authors say.
Of course, whilst the findings are perhaps not that surprising, in many actual work situations, giving candid feedback to a boss is something that many of us are loathe to do. It underlines the importance of creating a culture whereby employees of whatever rank and status are encouraged and supported in speaking up, regardless of who it’s to.