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Why Leaders Are Awful At Working Together

So THAT's why creative directors never get anything done together.

Photo: skynesher/Getty Images

Good leaders are experts at getting their teams to work together—but what happens when you ask leaders to collaborate with each other? Not much, according to a new study. UC Berkeley researchers Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson found that groups of leaders are generally less creative and effective as a team.

In their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Hildreth and Anderson set up a series of experiments, both in the lab and at an actual business (a major health care company), to study the performance of groups of leaders in different settings. In one of the lab studies, for example, they had 174 college students work in pairs on a tower-building task, and assigned one person to a high-power role (that person made all the decisions for the task), and the other to a low power role (he or she followed the other person’s directions). This unequal power dynamic primed participants for the next step, in which the high-power people worked in teams of three on a task, as did the low power people, so that there was an equal power dynamic within the groups. These teams completed a creative task: envisioning a new organization and mapping out its strategy. Then, two outside judges rated the creativity of these ideas. The researchers found that the high-powered groups were less creative than low-power teams and the control group (people who weren’t assigned a status).

Hildreth and Anderson followed up this experiment with several others in the lab to further test the phenomenon. In one, they had the same format as the first study, except in the second task they had people work alone rather than in teams. Strangely enough, they found that high-power individuals were actually more creative than anyone else when they worked alone—this suggested that people’s power was damaging group processes. In another experiment, the researchers showed that high-power teams worked better together in tasks that required less coordination.

The researchers also observed this negative group dynamic in a real-world experiment. They had 158 high- and low-power executives at a large health care company work on a negotiation task, and they split them into groups according to their status. They found that the most powerful teams had a harder time reaching an agreement compared to groups with less power.

In these experiments, the researchers also studied the cause of these problems among groups of leaders. They discovered that both in the lab and at the health care company, high-powered groups competed with each other over status in the group; they were less focused on the task (perhaps because they were busy competing for status); and they also shared fewer of their ideas with their teammates. "Power seems to individually help people, but then when they come together as a group, it starts interfering," explains Hildreth. And since the researchers observed the same dynamic in different settings, it suggests that these findings apply to groups of leaders generally.

Outside expert Adam Galinsky says these results don’t surprise him. "Past research speaks to the idea that without hierarchy—when things are too flat—it creates uncertainty for how people should behave and coordinate," says Galinsky, a professor at the Columbia Business School. "This study shows that the problem of flatness is especially problematic when all the members are high power." He also noted, "What makes this research really remarkable and important is the strength and quality of their empirical study."

Although Hildreth and Anderson have found strong evidence that leaders are terrible at working together, it seems unlikely that high-power people will ever hand over decision-making to their subordinates. This means that we need to figure out strategies for working around the negative effects of power in groups, says Hildreth. For instance, that might mean changing how we expect such collaborations to work. "In meetings, from minute one we’re jumping into a decision—but maybe we should consider the context in which these people are meeting," Hildreth says. "If they’re suffering from status conflict, maybe we need to give them some time and space to address their opinions, to demonstrate that they’re worthy of being in that room." That way, leaders could stop competing with each other and finally get something done.