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Is your leader squashing collaboration?

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Is your leader squashing collaboration?

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It’s a well trodden heuristic that employees tend to leave their managers rather than their jobs.  Whilst social business is supposed to flatten the organisational hierarchy, it would be trite to discount the importance of the humble manager entirely, with many studies indeed suggesting that the middle manager has a key role to play in successful collaboration.

Managers don’t always get that memo however, and can derail good collaboration very easily.  For instance, studies have shown that management and narcissism are steady bedfellows, and many managers can enjoy the sound of their own voice a bit too much to fully allow others to join in the fun.

A new study has however looked at the negative role managers can play in collaboration.  The research is based on a trio of studies of over 400 people that were split into groups of between three and six.  Each group was then tasked with tackling various business challenges, with each task favouring the sharing of information. For example, in one task, briefings containing different information were given to each participant, such that the right decision could only be reached if participants combined what they knew. This made it crucial that all group members were involved in discussions.

In one of the studies, certain participants were conditioned to enter a power based mindset, with some of them subsequently given formal positions of power within their groups, with the remainder left as they were.  It emerged that when participants were given the formal tag of leader, the other members of the team felt they talked a disproportionate amount during the tasks, with these discussions also rated as poorer in terms of openness towards different points of view.  Added together, these contributed to poorer performance in the task overall.

Interestingly, this phenomenon only occurred when people had formal power.  When participants were conditioned to think powerfully but were not given any formal position, the group performances were left unaltered.  This was no thanks to the puffed up leader however.  When conditioned to think powerfully, that individual began to display a more autocratic communication style, characterised by wanting to impose discipline or take control. This was true regardless of whether they had a leadership position. But they only influenced the group dynamics measured – speaking time and the climate of openness – when they had this leadership role.

The researchers believe that the difference is therefore not one found in the ‘leader’ but rather in their followers.  When the powerful individual had no title to match their behaviours, the other people in the group felt no need to defer to them at all.  When a position was attached to the powerful behaviour however, the group began to defer rather than to resist the dominant leader.

All of which has interesting implications for both leadership and of course collaboration.  Interestingly, a separate study into this found that leaders resisted the urge to dominate proceedings when they were explicitly reminded that everyone in the team has something unique to contribute towards the task, and that they would be well served to make use of this knowledge.  When this instruction was in place, formal leaders didn’t speak more or limit openness when they felt powerful, and their teams performed as well as for formal leaders without the power manipulation. So this suggests a potential mechanism to counter the stifling effect of power, by presenting open communication as being in the leader’s self interest.

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