When Power Makes Others Speechless: The Negative Impact of Leader Power on Team Performance

by Leigh Plunkett Tost, Francesca Gino & Richard P. Larrick

Overview — History has shown that possessing a great deal of power does not necessarily make someone a good leader. This paper explores the idea that power actually has a detrimental effect on leadership, especially with regard to how it affects open communication within a team. Research was conducted by Leigh Plunkett Tost of the University of Washington, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, and Richard P. Larrick of Duke University. Key concepts include:

  • Members of teams with high-power leaders are likely to keep quiet in meetings, both because high-power leaders talk a lot, meaning there's not much time for others to talk, and because of the perception—fair or not—that powerful people aren't interested in anyone else's ideas. This can result in a dearth of ideas during brainstorming sessions.
  • Leader power has a negative effect on team members' perceptions of the leader's ability and desire to engage in open communication. Because open communication is vital to any project, these perceptions can hurt team performance.
  • These negative effects of leader power can be virtually eliminated simply by clearly communicating the idea that every team member is individually instrumental to any given task at hand.

Author Abstract

We examine the impact of subjective power on leadership behavior and demonstrate that the psychological effect of power on leaders spills over to impact team effectiveness. Specifically, drawing from the approach/inhibition theory of power, power-devaluation theory, and organizational research on the antecedents of employee voice, we argue that a leader's experience of heightened power produces verbal dominance, which reduces perceptions of leader openness and team open communication. Consequently, there is a negative effect of leader power on team performance. Three studies find consistent support for this argument. The implications for theory and practice are discussed.

Paper Information