People are social by nature; we all want to be liked and respected by our peers and colleagues. The best leaders understand that to optimize their effectiveness, they need to define a role that isn’t friend or dictator, but something in between — but creating that happy medium is no easy task.
Let’s take a moment to imagine two leaders walking into two very different offices on a Monday morning.
The first leader is authoritative; he strides through a near-silent office to prepare the instructions he plans to hand out during the morning staff meeting. No one greets him, their eyes pointedly glued to the screens before them as an indication of their hard work. Few even attempt to make eye contact for more than a moment.
The second leader is the life of the office. When he enters, his greeting melds seamlessly into the lively noise of morning chatter. It’s a friendly and cheerful space, but he notes with some concern that despite it being a half hour into the workday, few people seem to be getting anything done and no one seems to have noticed his announcement regarding the weekly staff meeting.
This tension in leadership isn’t new; in fact, it has roots in a social theory that we establish hierarchy either by dominance or prestige. The two above scenarios broadly illustrate what can happen when leaders prioritize one or the other far more than they should. Here, I take a closer look at both.
The Dangers of Dominance
Dominance is exactly what it sounds like: these leaders maintain a tight grip on their followers by leaning on their formal authority. They don’t ask for attention, but demand it; often, their followers feel as though they have limited choice in whether they obey and little voice in the decision-making process. They are assertive, pragmatic and straightforward — usually to the point of bluntness.
This pragmatic approach might sound a little harsh — and for some employees, it might indeed grind on morale or contribute to burnout — but it does work. Jeff Bezos, one of the top-performing CEOS in the world, is a dominant pragmatist. Being a dominant-leaning leader isn’t a problem until an excess of ego comes into the equation.
Power is addictive. As management scholar Jon Maner writes in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “Dominant leaders crave power, because power allows them to make decisions knowing that their subordinates will fall in line.”
That obedience can be thrilling — and toxic. Dominated employees tend to keep their ideas to themselves and follow orders without question, thereby allowing their leaders’ egos to grow unchecked. As a result, these bosses are not challenged to think critically or to assess perspectives on the industry, their customers, or even a specific project that differs from their own. Without the opportunity for communication and collaboration, they lose out on valuable opportunities to learn and grow as industry experts, and create a toxic culture of silence and dislike within their workplaces.
The Problem With Prestige
Prestige-driven leaders care about what their employees think and feel. Unlike domineering bosses, they don’t feel a driving urge to direct every detail; they’re more than happy to take a backseat and manage their employees with carefully-timed nudges. This approach empowers employees to be creative and collaboratively engaged in the work they take on each day.
However, caring too much about how employees’ perceptions can lead to severe shortcomings regarding managerial performance. Overly-empathetic managers may tiptoe around or even avoid socially-awkward interactions such as providing feedback or criticism, thereby allowing their employees to persist in unproductive behaviors and deliver sub-par work.
Falling into an overly casual leadership style can also open the door to problematic interpersonal relationships. Without clear boundaries, leaders and employees who develop personal friendships may struggle with accusations of favoritism, a lack of respect and too-casual interactions in the office. Unfortunately, once lost, that sense of authority is difficult for leaders to regain.
Making the Most of the Middle Ground
Leaders must approach employees with the intent to engage them in work at hand, rather than to force or passively encourage them to do it. As business administration researcher Boris Groysberg notes in an article on the subject, effective leadership today is more conversational than it is demanding. He writes, “By talking with employees, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities—operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment—that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.”
However, these leaders also must maintain control of the conversation, and not fade into a prestige-tinged background. Every employee must realize that while creativity is encouraged, idea-sharing won’t be allowed to fracture into an unproductive debate or meander into an undirected conversation. With this approach, leaders remain gently in a position of authority at all times, knowing that they can speed along a slogging project with a touch of pragmatic dominance or inspire their team into creativity by taking a more empathetic and prestige-driven approach.
The choice between one style and another is as it should be: entirely in their hands.