Occasionally in organisations, leaders engage in tactics that actually undermine the cohesion and performance of their own team. What's going on in such situations? What are the games some leaders play and why do they do it?
Through the lens of human instinct, and especially observing dominance hierarchies, the tactics by certain leaders does make sense (not for positive reasons, but rational nonetheless). They are motivated to hold on to their position of power. Certain leaders are more likely than others to play the two games outlined below. And they play the games under certain threat conditions.
The games some leaders play
There are two tactics that insecure, power-oriented leaders are most likely to play.
- Game 1 - Limit communication
Under certain conditions, leaders motivated by power will limit communication in the group, even though reducing communication will actually make it harder for the group to function. In a recent study, when leaders motivated by power perceive their position as risk, they took action to limit communication but in a very specific way. Such leaders limited the communication between the most skilled subordinate and the other subordinates. The leader did not limit communication between non-skilled colleagues, and did not limit the communication they personally had with the skilled subordinate. The motivation to limit communication between the skilled subordinate and the rest of the team was probably to reduce the chance of a skilled subordinate building an alliance with other subordinates.
- Game 2 - Physical separation
Leaders who took action to reduce their team’s communication took one further step when the option was available. They physically isolated the skilled subordinate by having them work in a separate room to the rest of the group. Such leaders took this step even though they were explicitly told that separating the team would reduce the team’s performance. Separating the team would reduce the opportunities for social bonding and reduce the influence of the skilled colleague.
Who plays these games?
The two games are not played by all leaders. They are played by leaders who are motivated by power (controlling others, moving up the hierarchy), not by leaders who are motivated by respect (being admired, making a difference). Leaders motivated by respect do not behave in a way that compromises group interests, whereas power-oriented leaders want to maintain their position even if their behaviour works against the group.
When do they play the games?
Power-motivated leaders are more likely to play the divisive games if they perceive that their power is threatened. In the study, there were two threat conditions introduced.
- Threat 1 - A skilled colleague
When there is a highly skilled individual on the team, a power-orientated leader can perceive such a person as a threat to their position. They take action to reduce the threat, such as reducing the influence of a competent colleague.
- Threat 2 - Unstable hierarchy
When the hierarchy is unstable, a leader is more likely to perceive their role is at risk. In the study, instability was created by the group being told that the team would collectively decide who would serve as the leader. But when the hierarchy was stable - participants were assured that their position was permanent and their power could not be lost - power-oriented leaders did not engage in the divisive behaviour.
Reducing power games in your organisation
If you are a senior leader or HR executive keen to reduce the games leaders play, the following steps can reduce the incidence of these power games that undermine performance.
- Appoint people to leadership roles who are motivated by respect rather than power. A preference for internal leadership appointments means we have a better chance of knowing a potential leader’s motivation.
- As far as possible, give leaders a sense of stability in their roles - reduce the fear of instability and churn in leadership roles.
- Establish an expectation that leaders will hold team bonding events (coffee catch-ups, team lunches, periodic social events), and monitor that events are being held.
- Scan for situations where leaders physically separate certain members of their team that doesn’t appear to you to be for sound reasons.
- Be on-guard when leaders speak against highly skilled and capable senior people in their team - the skilled team members are the ones more likely to be seen as a threat by insecure leaders.
Source: C R Case and J K Maner, “Divide and Conquer: When and Why Leaders Undermine the Cohesive Fabric of Their Group” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol 107, No 6, 1033-1050.