Though strong leadership has long been thought to be the key to an organization's success, new research suggests otherwise: A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan, Harvard University and Duke University found that when leaders let their power go to their head, their teams don't perform up to par.

"The subjective experience of power increases formal leaders' tendencies to verbally dominate social interactions and diminishes perceptions of authority openness, which, in turn, diminishes team performance," the researchers wrote in the study.

The University of Michigan's Leigh Plunkett Tost, a co-author of the study, said having leaders isn't the problem. Rather, conflicts arise when those leaders equate leadership with power, and proceed to dominate team interactions while discounting the potential of other team members.

As part of the study, the researchers conducted several different experiments. In the experiments, some of the participants were told beforehand to think about a time when they had power over someone and how that experience could help them as team leaders.

In one study, participants were divided into teams, all with formally designated leaders, and were asked to complete a project. Half of those leaders were prepared to feel extra powerful with the questions from researchers before the experiment began. The study's authors found that team leaders who were primed for power accounted for, on average, about 33 percent of the talking in their teams, compared with 19 percent for the other half of leaders who were not primed for power by the researchers. In addition, the powerful leaders' teams achieved a significantly lower level of the exercise's goals.

"By doing most of the talking, powerful formal leaders conveyed a sense that they were not open to others' input, and this dynamic produced a lower level of team performance, as measured by the team's ability to reach their goals in the simulation," the authors wrote.

In another experiment, participants were divided into four-person teams and were asked to carry out an exercise in which reaching the right decision on a personnel issue depended on each group's ability to share information. Half of the designated team leaders were prepared before the experiment with the power questions, and half were not. Additionally, half the leaders were reminded that all team members had the potential to contribute to the team's success.

The researchers found that not one of the teams with the "powerful" leaders who had not been reminded about team contributions reached the right decision, compared with more than half of the other teams.

"Feelings of power produce a tendency to devalue the perspectives, opinions and contributions of others," the authors wrote. "When leaders were reminded that all team members had the potential to contribute to the team's success, these effects did not emerge."

The researchers offered several tips for fostering an ego-free environment:

  • Maintain a relatively flat organizational structure and egalitarian culture.
  • Train leaders to cultivate high levels of authority openness and to encourage open team communications.
  • Institute practices and policies that serve to remind leaders of the important potential contributions of their subordinates.
  • Encourage all members to question the legitimacy of formal leaders who take a dominating approach to social interactions.

The study, co-authored by Francesca Gino of Harvard and Richard Larrick of Duke, was published in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.