June 24, 2024

Teams led by powerful but psychopathic leaders perform worse, studies find

A news study found that when leaders have elevated levels of the psychopathic trait known as dispositional meanness and are in positions of great power, their teams tend to perform worse. Teams under average leaders perform worse the more power the team leader has. The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

Factors that determine whether a person will be a good or bad leader have been the focus of public debate since the beginning of history. The sayings like “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts,” “Great men are almost always bad people,” “Bad people cause bad things,” and many similar sayings are known throughout the world.

One factor that is often the focus of this debate is the amount of power a leader has. In this sense, power is defined as “a person’s capacity to control the outcomes of others as a function of their formal hierarchical position”. This type of power is seen as a resource, as the possession of power alone does not yet determine whether and how a person will use it. While many societies use systems with various checks and balances intended to prevent any one individual from gaining too much power, other societies support the idea of ​​having a strong supreme leader with great power.

Apart from power, another important thing to consider is how the leader prefers to behave. In this regard, the constellation of traits known as psychopathy has attracted much research attention. This is especially true of the aspect of psychopathy known as meanness. Meanness involves low empathy, callousness, and a tendency toward aggressive manipulations of others. Average people in leadership positions are often prone to being hostile to others and creating conflicts. But what about their effectiveness as leaders?

The author of the study Iris Kranefeld wanted to know how a leader’s mindset and his/her power interact to determine the performance of the team the leader leads. The performance of the team is equal to the effectiveness of the leader. She expected that team performance and leader effectiveness would decline as attitude and positional power increased.

“The chimera of psychopathic leaders has attracted a lot of attention in the media over the past decade. However, dysfunctional leader behavior is rarely a product of toxic personality traits (e.g., psychopathic personality), but is often fostered or mitigated by situational characteristics,” explained Kranefeld, who is affiliated with the University of Bonn and Kölner Institut für Managementberatung.

“Therefore, my aim was to provide a more nuanced picture of when and how leaders with high psychopathy are more (or less) prone to negatively impact the performance and well-being of their teams. Specifically, in this study, I investigated how the amount of power possessed by psychopathic leaders was related to their team’s performance. In addition, I investigated how this subsequently related to their (supervisor-perceived) leadership effectiveness.

She conducted the study by having students, who were unaware of the study’s hypothesis, approach individuals in Germany in leadership positions as potential participants. There were no limitations regarding the line of work of the participants. The participants were 281 leaders who were required to have at least one supervisor and at least one subordinate invited to participate in the study.

About half of the leaders were women. Their average age was 42 years, they worked 40 hours a week, and they reported having, on average, 8 years of experience in their current position. 11% were from upper management, 48% from middle management, 32% were from lower management, and 10% reported having a different leadership function (eg, project leadership).

The leaders completed study assessments, but were also rated by a supervisor and 1-5 of their subordinates. Leaders completed assessments of psychopathy (the Triarchic Psychopathy measure) and situated power (a 4-item scale asking what a leader can be in control of e.g., “I am in charge of my employees’ promotions,” “I am in charge of my employees’ promotion,” etc.).

The team’s performance was evaluated through ratings given by the subordinates. They were asked to rate how well the work group led by the target leader performs at various tasks. Leadership effectiveness was assessed by having the target leader’s supervisor rate the target leader’s performance in 12 different activities (eg, “leading a group at work” or “motivating others”).

The results showed that the leader’s meanness and positional power interacted in the prediction of team performance. When the leader’s power was high, average subordinates tended to see their team performing worse compared to non-average subordinates.

“The more power a psychopathic leader is granted, the more they tend to express harmful behaviors that affect their team’s performance (and also their overall performance as leaders),” Kranefeld told PsyPost. “Therefore, companies may be well advised to monitor the amount of power their managers and leaders have and consider using control mechanisms, or screening for psychopathic traits when selecting leaders.

“On the other hand, the good news is that the saying that power corrupts doesn’t seem to apply to everyone: Instead, leaders with low expressed psychopathic traits tended to have higher leader performance when they had more power.”

But when power was not taken into account, leader meanness was unrelated to team performance.

“I expected that their staff would always view leaders with higher expressions of psychopathic traits as bad leaders,” Kranefeld said. “However, I did not find such a main effect in my data.”

The study greatly contributes to the scientific understanding of the factors that determine leadership effectiveness. However, there are also limitations that must be taken into account. In particular, the study design does not allow any cause and effect conclusions to be drawn. In addition, the leader participating in the study nominated the subordinates and the supervisor who gave ratings. A bias may have been introduced which may have affected the results.

“The participants in this study were middle managers in Germany from a variety of jobs and industries, so it could be interesting that future research addresses the role of power and psychopathy in higher management or in specific job types as well,” Kranefeld said.

The study, “Psychopathy in positions of power: The moderating role of positional power in the relationship between psychopathic meanness and leadership outcomes”, wrote Iris Kranefeld.

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