Topic: Power, Leadership Communication, and Organizational Culture

Author(s), Title and Publication

Tost, L.; Gino, F.; & Larrick, R. (2011). When power makes others speechless: The negative impact of leader power on team performance. Academy of Management Journal, published online before print September 4, 2012.


This research examined the impact of leaders’ feelings of power on communication openness and team performance with three studies. Study 1 investigated the influence of leaders’ psychological experience of power on team performance; 106 students were assigned to 20 teams with five members in each team and a sixth member in six teams as observer. The experiment used a web-based simulation with the context of a Mount Everest expedition. In each team, students were assigned to one of five roles in a team attempting to summit the mountain: leader, photographer, physician, environmentalist, or marathoner. They used chat programs to communicate with each other to decide the distribution of supplies, hiking speed, routes, etc. After the simulation, the authors measured non-leader students’ perceptions of the leaders’ amount of talking and openness, and team performance (whether the team summited the mountain). Results showed the leaders who felt more powerful dominated the team interactions by talking more than other members, which resulted in less communication openness and poor team performance.

Study 2 replicated study 1 and investigated whether the effects only emerged when the leader holds a formal leadership position. Participants (144 people) were assigned to 48 teams to solve a murder case. Materials given to each team included 45 shared clues and eight unique clues. All participants used nametags, but the formal leaders used nametags labeled “LEADER.” After the team discussion, each team named one suspect and completed questionnaires, which measured each member’s amount of talking, perceived communication openness, team decision performance (whether the team chose the correct suspect), team learning performance (whether the team shared unique clues), and leadership style. Similar to findings of study 1, results of study 2 indicated that members in the teams with formal leaders reported more talking by leaders, less open communication, and worse team performance than those in the teams without formal leaders.

Study 3 investigated whether a leader’s awareness of the potential contributions of others would eliminate the negative effects. Participants (152 people) were assigned to 38 teams, and each team was asked to recommend to the CEO one of three finalists for the position of chief financial officer (CFO). They were told that the common information of the candidates were not thorough, and they could find the best candidate only if they shared information effectively. After finishing the experiment, participants answered questions about amount of talking, open communication, team decision performance, the formal leaders’ perceived power and influence in decision-making process, and the formal leaders’ perceptions of team members’ contributions. Results suggested that leaders’ awareness of the contributions of team members could eliminate the negative effects caused by leaders’ feelings of power.

In sum, this research found that team leaders who feel more power tend to dominate interactions in team discussion, and diminish communication openness and team performance. The negative effects are significant when the team leaders hold formal leadership positions, but are less prominent if the team leaders are aware of team members’ potential contributions and solicit and recognize them.

Implications for Practice

To minimize the negative effects of team leaders’ feelings of power on team performance, organizations may maintain a relatively flat organizational structure and egalitarian culture, encourage open team communication, remind leaders of the important contributions of their subordinates with practice or policies, provide relevant training and practice for leaders, and encourage team members to question the legitimacy of leaders’ dominant approach in team work.

Location of Article

The article is available online at: (full text)




Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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