How Power Affects Performance

April 21, 2016
| ByMadison

"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. Merely having superior talent is not enough for groups to be effective. Their members must also work together productively." - Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance.

We’re all familiar with “the last kid picked for the team” adage. In the schoolyard scenario, the athletes with the highest skill level and overall best proven ability to win are chosen first. Conversely, the players who show the least athleticism and lowest level of ability are chosen last. Fast forward 20 years later to the corporate landscape. Top talent will always be sought after when building teams, however research shows that a group of superior performers doesn’t always translate into success.

Common logic dictates that if you took one powerful and successful person and multiplied that skill and talent by 10, then a team of 10 top performers should increase the group’s chance of success. Well, maybe not. In a Harvard Business Review piece, Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson of the University of California’s Haas School of Business examine why powerful people often fail when working together.

In their paper published for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, titled "Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance," Hildreth and Anderson explore group dynamics among leaders to determine if failure is predicated by the fact that each has become accustomed to having a certain level of power in previous teams.

While the researchers note that power has many positive effects such as high productivity, exceptional individual performance, creativity and goal oriented strategic thinking, when a group of powerful employees are working together, the results can be negative.

"When more powerful individuals worked alone or on tasks that required less coordination with others, they performed better than anyone else; but when they worked together on tasks that required more coordination with others, those same powerful individuals performed worse than others." Harvard Business Review.

Essentially, their research showed that the struggle for power proved to be a stumbling block for achieving the group’s goal. Some team members would take credit for another person’s contribution. Creativity and information sharing also proved to be challenging in the team environment, whereas if they were working individually they would be successful.


So what can you learn from this, and more importantly, what can you do to ensure your most talented teams are collaborating?

Hildreth and Anderson recommend giving these groups opportunities for horizontal recognition and voicing their opinions. Designing a peer-to-peer recognition program in your social recognition technology can guide the positive behaviors necessary for fostering collaboration amongst teams of powerful employees. Over time, as trust builds throughout the team, sharing information becomes less of a threat and more of a strategy. The goal is to get these employees to see their power as a collaborative tool used to contribute to the team goal, rather than a personal asset that needs to be wielded or protected at all costs.

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