Power, Leadership and Listening

Have you ever been in a team with a powerful leader and felt your opinion wouldn’t be valued?

What about the converse… have you ever led a team where the team members seemed disinclined to offer opinions and contribute to the conversations?

When powerful team leaders are verbally dominant the team members are less inclined to speak up and contribute their ideas. A 2011 Harvard working paper concluded:

  • Power leads individuals to dominate social interactions and to engage in increased amounts of talking, which inhibits input from others.
  • Power decreases perceptions of leader openness and diminishes team performance.
  • Members of teams with high-power leaders are more likely to keep quiet in meetings, not only because there’s not much time for others to talk in the presence of such leaders, but also because of the perception – fair or not – that powerful people aren’t interested in anyone else’s ideas.

How you use it

Important here is the observation that there is no direct relationship between the amount of power a leader is given and the team’s productivity; high productivity depends on how that leader wields the power they are given.

However in my experience there are many situations when productivity is only one aspect of overall team effectiveness. When a team has a project requiring a high level of creativity, innovation and coordination with stakeholders, overall effectiveness will likely be significantly reduced when team members are disinclined to contribute to the conversation.

Leaders’ listening practices capture value

Two examples spring readily to mind: software development and deployment, and high-level professional services advisory work. Even though the nature of the work is different, in both cases the value for the customer is added through collaboration far more than through individual contribution. This requires more listening from the leader.

Apparently the research showed that the situation can be remedied: when the high power leader is made aware of the importance of other team members’ roles and contributions, she or he will take steps encourage others to contribute to the conversation.

This makes sense. As I see it, the risk comes when high power leaders are blind to this social phenomenon: they don’t realise the extent to which they verbally dominate the team and take more than their share of airtime.

Needed and wanted for leaders: skills for listening and practices to elicit participation.