The Hass Business School study I referred to last time ingeniously studied the relationships between high-powered individuals and team cohesion, creativity and collaboration. And in each of these areas, findings were pretty unambiguous: teams composed of high-powered individuals performed significantly worse than low-powered to neutral-powered teams.
Hass researchers cultivated a sense of power amongst some of the study participants by dividing the sample group into pairs and randomly designating one member of each pair as the “high power” participant. Each pair was then asked to compete a simple building exercise using blocks.
Following this high-power with low/neutral pairing, the duos were “re-shuffled:” high-power participants were now placed in teams with other high-power individuals. The new teams were asked to complete an exercise involving creativity.
The intriguing finding was that, even in this ‘laboratory’ (as opposed to real world) setting, participants who had engaged in the brief block building exercise as ‘high power’ individuals were significantly less able to be creative as team members than the other participants, as rated by judges who were blind to the study’s power designations.
It may be an oversimplification to make a blanket comment like “power corrupts” but this study suggests that there are occasions and contexts when this observation isn’t far off the mark.
The Haas study doesn’t invalidate or derogate the ‘power-posing’ technique I referred to last time in Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. When participants who’d been designated “high power” members in the paired block-building exercise were asked to complete creativity tasks by themselves, they outperformed their lower-power counterparts. Those ‘blind’ third party judges I mentioned earlier consistently rates high power individuals working on their own as more creative.
As US Air Force Captain Bob DeWees, who I referred to last time, puts it:
In short, power can be beneficial for individual performances like a job interview. For team performances, however, it’s destructive.
Next time, I’ll explore what leaders should do to solve the paradoxes of power in their teams.