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Why Groups Of Top Employees Don’t Perform As Well

Source | FastCompany : By Lydia Dishman

Put a bunch of powerful people together and sit back and watch them meet their goals with ease. Indeed, if mathematics alone was responsible for the outcome, it would make sense that a powerful person times two, 10, or more should exponentially increase the group’s chances of success. But it doesn’t always work that way.

As Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson of the University of California’s Haas School of Business ask in Harvard Business Review, why do powerful people, when working together, fail as often as they do?

In a new paper published for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, titled “Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance,” Hildreth and Anderson examine group dynamics among leaders to determine if failure is dictated by the fact that each has become accustomed to having a certain amount of power among their respective reports.

The researchers note that this is still counterintuitive because studies have shown that when an individual has power, it helps boost their productivity in a variety of ways, from processing information and being more goal-oriented to thinking creatively and staying on task.

“Above and beyond having talented individuals, a group’s performance depends on whether its members cooperate with each other, communicate effectively, and put selfish interests aside for the good of the collective,” the researchers write in their paper. “Merely having superior talent is not enough for groups to be effective. Their members must also work together productively.”

Power’s Negative Effect

As such, their experiments revealed the opposite: Power can have a negative effect on group performance.

While previous research has suggested that power can lead an individual to feel overconfident, rude, and greedy to the point that the leader would take credit for the contributions of others, the findings have been focused on collective group power rather than studying groups made up of individuals with power.

To test their theory, the researchers conducted a series of four experiments collectively involving over 1,000 participants (a pool that included both students and executives) who came into the research lab and were videotaped while working on tasks individually or in groups. Although the tasks were designed to emulate real work, some tested creativity, while others challenged the groups’ ability to reach consensus in negotiations.

For example, in one experiment, groups of two were tasked with building the tallest tower they could out of gumdrops and toothpicks in five minutes. The “leader” was then asked to evaluate their partner’s performance. In another experiment, groups of three—either all leaders, all low-power individuals, or all the neutral control group—were tasked with inventing a new organization and outlining its strategy.

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