When Leaders Sacrifice Group Goals for the Sake of Self-Interest

leadership abusive

The recent financial crisis is partly due to leaders abusing their power for self-interest. CEO’s and other leaders are responsible for the promotion and welfare of their clients and workers. Instead of wielding their power for the greater good, leaders might be tempted to use their power in self-serving ways. What makes leaders use their power not to promote the welfare of others but to use it to enhance their personal interest and to increase their power an domination?

An evolutionary view on leadership:

The relationship between leaders and followers reflects a social contract wherein followers trust leaders to make decisions that benefit the group and leaders agree to pursue actions that are in the group’s best interests. The prevalence of leadership throughout history and across species suggests that leadership provides a stable strategy for effective group functioning

In order to achieve the goals of the group, leaders are given power and group members must give up some of their power. This balance can be delicate, group members will tend to make the power gap as small as possible while leaders may be motivated to maintain or increase the power gap. Hence the proverb “power corrupts”.

From an evolutionary theory standpoint the problem of increasing power and using it for self interest was researched with two important general approaches. One being dominance or the strategy focused on maintaining the power gap between oneself and others. And the other being prestige which reflects a strategy in which people use their high social status to attain positive group outcomes. Individual differences in these two features were studied in 5 experiments and recently published. Situational factors such as group instability and intergroup competition were also studied since these factors increase the possibility of misuse of power.

From several experiments it was learned that leaders high in dominance tend to hold information back when their role in the group was tenuous in order to protect their power. They only did so when the hierarchy in the group was unstable and their position threatened. They also tend to exclude top performers when the hierarchy was unstable because he or she was seen as a threat to their power. In case of an unstable hierarchy in the group leaders high in dominance tend to hold back information, exclude their best workers in order to protect their power. Those low in dominance motivation did not resort to those tricks.

The presence of a competitive other group cause dominance oriented leaders to perceive their top performers as especially happy and creating a harmonious work environment as well as cooperative. In the absence of competition with another group, leaders high in dominance motivation view their excellent group members as a rival and a threat to their power. The presence of a competitive group changes the attitude of the high in dominance leader from seeing their excellent group members either as competitors or allies. Moreover in the absence of a competitive out-group, the best group members were placed in a role with little influence. When faced with a competitive group, the excellent members were put in a director role, a role with greater influence.

In short, using power for self-interest was observed only among leaders high in dominance motivation. This was not observed in those high in desire for prestige or low in dominance motivation. Other situations contributing to selfish use of power in those high in dominance were situations in which the power could be threatened by group instability, on the other hand presence of a competitive group decreases the possibility of misuse of power.

Why is this important?
This research amongst other research on this topic might have implications for managing group processes.

  • A stable system in which leaders are secure but accountable could provide a favorable context for group success, this could be improved by changing the hierarchy after predefined periods of time
  • Initial group formation and changes to the composition of groups are periods in which leaders can attempt to increase their power, group instability needs extra care in the form of more accountability
  • Hierarchy in groups should be as flat as possible and power distributed amongst individuals
  • Leaders’ power should not extend beyond the domains of their specialized knowledge and group size should be kept to a minimum. Larger groups tend to increase decision making hierarchy and extend the span of control for leaders way beyond their expertise
  • Group competition can enhance group success
  • When selecting leaders be aware that rather than those with a desire for authority or domination, those with valuable skills or knowledge may be better suited to leadership

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org
Maner, J., & Mead, N. (2010). The essential tension between leadership and power: When leaders sacrifice group goals for the sake of self-interest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (3), 482-497 DOI: 10.1037/a0018559