Bosses that Fear Losing Power May Sabotage Their team

While bad bosses come in many shapes and sizes including the disorganized, incompetent, and lazy, the worst yet may be those who sabotage their teams.

Professor of organizations and management at Kellogg School, Jon Maner has dedicated himself to studying the boss that fears losing their own leadership/power status.

Specifically, Maner has studied how these bosses sabotage their teams in order to stay on top.

Such bosses will intentionally mismatch teams, place limitations on team bonding and communication, and purposefully take the best players out of the game.

Maner says that these bosses can effectively eliminate any team dynamic by separating individuals and making the team fall apart.

Along with his colleague Charleen Case, a Kellogg School doctoral student, they noticed that bosses motivated by power and dominance were significantly more likely to sabotage the team, than bosses motivated by respect or prestige.

Identifying Why and How Power-Hungry Leaders Sabotage

In one experiment, Maner and Case told undergraduate students that they should expect to lead a group in performing a verbal task. More prizes would be awarded to better scoring groups. These participants were then told that one group member was highly skilled in the task.

Next, these participants were assigned to one of three experimental groups.

  1. The first group was told they would need to be the leader who supervised the task and divided prizes among the group members.
  2. The second was told to supervise the task and give out the prizes but that the leadership role was unstable and someone else could acquire it.
  3. The third group had no leader and all participants would share prizes equally.

Maner and Case were most interested in learning which leaders, under which conditions, would be most likely to undermine their group’s performance. And to see if they would isolate the highly skilled group member in order to limit communication.

As suspected the researchers found that leaders in the second group who had previously tested highly in their desire for power were the most likely to sabotage their teams. They most often did this by going after the skilled team member.

In one experiment, the leader forced the highly skilled team member to work alone in a room despite being told that team work would improve results. In another experiment, the saboteur paired the skilled team member in a group they knew would fail.

Maner was surprised to learn how far these leaders would go in order to retain their own power. Instead of identifying the highly skilled team member as an ally who can help the team win, the leader was threatened by their level of skill thus limiting their influence in the group.

When power hungry bosses think that the management structure is unstable and/or their job security is threatened, they are increasingly likely to employ undermining tactics. Their number one tactic is to remove highly skilled team members from contact with the others.

Dealing with a Saboteur at Work

Although Maner’s experimental results were revealing, these behaviors happen every day in the workplace. So the question is, how can people/organizations prevent this type of sabotage from happening on the job?

  • One suggestion would be clarifying that the leader’s job security relies on the success of the group as a whole.
  • Manner also suggests that leaders must know that they will be held accountable for their actions and won’t be able to shuffle the blame to a subordinate.
  • Another strategy would be for organizations to standardize and regulate team communications so bad bosses would have less opportunity to interfere.

But these suggestions would not solve the entire problem, since the root cause would still exist i.e the boss feeling that their position/power is unstable.

In an effort to keep an organization’s flexibility while promoting a better work environment, Maner suggests companies try instituting periods of stability so bosses know their jobs are secure.

These periods of two or three years would alternate with the opportunity to change leadership if needed. This suggestion would be similar to that of elected government officials who hold office between two and six years.

Finding Leaders Who Aren’t Power Hungry

If an organization can give those seeking respect and prestige positions of leadership, less sabotaging might result.

Unfortunately, those who want power are often the ones who strive for leadership positions and are eager to move up to roles of higher responsibility.

Although Maner’s work seems to favor the prestige-seeking leaders, he cautions that this might be an oversimplification and that they’re not necessarily an organization’s remedy. He plans to focus more research on these leaders’ decision making process. Ultimately, Maner wants his research to help increase productivity and improve a company’s efficiency.

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