When you take on a leadership role, there are many different goals you are probably trying to pursue. You’d like to be liked (or at least respected) in that role. You may also be interested in having your vision of the future carried out. In addition, you probably want to succeed at whatever goals the group has adopted.
As it turns out, these goals can sometimes be at odds.
Indeed, one of the hardest things about being a leader is that people may disagree with your beliefs about what should be done to succeed. Steve Jobs was famous for clashing with members of his team over aspects of the design and implementation of products. He prized his vision over being liked by others.
A paper in the October 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Charleen Case, Katherine Bae, and Jon Maner explored how people make this tradeoff between their vision and those of the people they are leading.
In one study, participants were brought to a room in the lab and were told that three other participants on their team were in other rooms. They completed a few questionnaires that purported to determine which member of a group should be the leader. Then, the participant was assigned to the group leader with the task of deciding which strategy the team should use to assemble a jigsaw puzzle.
As the leader, participants saw what strategy the three other team members wanted to use. The leader was told that they were the only one given information about which strategy was most successful. They alone would get to determine what strategy the team members were going to use. In the public condition, everyone on the team was going to be told that the leader made the decision. In the private condition, team members would not know how the strategy decision was made. Before selecting a strategy, participants were told that the other group members all selected the suboptimal strategy.
Finally, participants also filled out a scale that assessed their leadership style. It focused on whether people tend to focus on being respected and admired, or whether they focused on having authority and power.
In the private condition, participants tended to select the strategy that would lead to the best outcome, regardless of their leadership style. In the public condition, though, the more that participants wanted to be admired as leaders, the more likely they were to select the strategy that the other participants wanted. In contrast, the more they enjoyed authority and power, the more they tended to select the optimal strategy despite what the other participants wanted.
The researchers obtained similar results in four other experiments. In two of these experiments, participants’ leadership style was measured as it was in the study I just described.
In two other studies, participants were focused on either status or power through a manipulation. In the status condition, the instructions emphasized the admiration that comes along with being the group leader. In the power condition, participants were told they would get to determine the roles each other participant played in the task, as well as the payment they would receive for doing the study.
In the studies in which the orientation was manipulated, participants who made decisions publicly were more likely to choose the strategy that the other team members wanted when they were focused on status than when they were focused on power.
These findings suggest that leaders pay attention both to what other team members want as well as to what strategies are best to carry out. When there is a conflict between what team members want and what is right to do, they are more likely to choose the optimal strategy when they focus on power than when they focus on status.
Of course, in many situations, leaders need to pay attention to both status and power. Leaders who are not liked may have difficulty staying in power, even when they are successful. Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple for several years, because his colleagues did not like his style. One option for leaders is to find situations in which the outcome is not that crucial to allow team members to get what they want and to overrule the desires of the group primarily in situations in which the outcome is crucial for an organization’s survival.
Case, C.R., Bae, K.K., & Maner, J.K. (2018). To lead or to be liked: When prestige-oriented leaders prioritize popularity over performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(4), 657-676.
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