Performance Ignited

Study: Powerful People Don't Work Well Together

Study: Powerful People Don't Work Well Together
Image credit: Marvel Studios

We're searching for top company cultures to be featured on our annual list. Think your company has what it takes? Apply Now »

For big decisions, bringing as many important people to the table seems like the smart choice. After all, high-ranking individuals typically achieved their status through merit (at least, that’s the hope).

But powerful people, it turns out, don’t always work so well together. That’s the takeaway from a series of studies out of the University of California, which examined how people in positions of authority interacted with individuals on the same hierarchal level.

In the first experiment, researchers arbitrarily assigned undergraduate participants the role of leader, worker or control. Leaders had authority to evaluate workers' performance and decide how much money they were awarded for completing a given task. Next, participants were placed in groups of three and tasked with designing a new product: workers were placed with other workers, and leaders with other leaders (control participants were also grouped in threes, and worked together). Based on analysis by a panel of independent judges, teams of leaders were consistently ranked the least creative.

Related: Study: If Your Team Has Too Many Superstars, Performance Will Suffer

When the researchers brought real-life executives into the lab and divvied them up based on their hierarchical position within their organizations -- the four most powerful executives worked together, the next four most powerful did the same and so on -- they noticed the same overarching trend: powerful people don’t work well together. In this case, participants were asked to select a candidate from a pool of four for a senior management position. Teams that contained the most high-ranking executives were able to reach a consensus less than half the time. Those that contained the least powerful executives, meanwhile, reached an agreement 86 percent of the time.

By analyzing video footage of the conversations, the researchers began to piece together why this was the case: the more powerful the executives, the more time they spent jockeying for position within the group. As a result, there was less time to communicate or, you know, actually discuss the issue at hand.

“Groups comprised of high-power individuals not only fought over status more but were less focused on the task and shared less information with each other,” the authors write. “The detrimental effect of power on group performance was mediated by the relatively higher levels of status conflict, and lower levels of task focus and information sharing that members of these groups experienced compared with members of other groups.”

Related: How to Think, Train and Thrive Like a Champion

In the end, the study’s results aren’t that surprising -- ask a bunch of individuals who are used to being the most important person to collaborate, and it’ll likely get messy. Put another way, as the itself study concludes, “interaction among the powerful is vulnerable to conflict and miscommunication that undermines their collective performance.”

For more information, check out the piece the study’s authors wrote for Harvard Business Review