Study on leaders: Striving for power is overrated


In addition to finding skilled professionals, selecting suitable leaders is a big challenge for companies. A study from Bamberg suggests that problems with misguidance are sometimes home-made, as the selection processes favor behaviors that prove detrimental in the long run.

For the published in the journal Nature study Organizational psychologists from the University of Bamberg had chosen the classic board game "The Settlers of Catan". Under laboratory conditions, a total of 201 players competed in groups of three and four. The players could decide for themselves whether they would play against each other or would rather choose a cooperative strategy. Only a coin toss after the game determined whether the players should be rewarded for their individual score or for the overall performance of all players.

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"It is not easy in psychology to look at people in their normal environment," says organizational psychologist Christian Wolff from the University of Bamberg talking to heise online. The researchers specifically selected the settlers of Catan: "One of the peculiarities of the game is that you do not necessarily have to play against each other," explains Wolff.

To analyze the consequences of destructive behavior in particular, the researchers chose a variant of the game that allows the use of oil – which, however, can lead to environmental damage and thus to declining overall yields. In order to be able to assess the players and their motivation correctly, the subjects had to complete a questionnaire beforehand.

The experiment showed that the participants, who have a strong selfish drive for power, most often caused an oil spill. For the subjects of a more cooperative nature, this happened much less often. This is particularly evident in the differentiation by gender: men, in whom the destructive power motive was much more pronounced, caused oil spills five times more frequently than the women, who on average had significantly more cooperative behavior.

In the end, however, the risk deliberately taken was hardly worth it: For example, the controversial participants only paid a few cents more than the cooperative teammates. In the end, the groups that players played on their own tended to fare worse.

In an aftermath analysis, the players should also rate each other. Result: Ironically, the players who refused to cooperate, received high scores when it came to an assumed leadership role. Even the oil desasters had only a weak effect on this rating. The groups that ultimately produced the better game results, however, were rated rather as rather weak leadership.

For the organizational psychologist Wolff, this result is not surprising, but shows how leadership in our society is valued. For example, too much emphasis is placed on promotion or new hiring of executives for the candidates to have strong power impulses. This is actually counterproductive: "A manager has it due to their position anyway rather easy to prevail – an additional enforcement would therefore actually unnecessary," said Wolff. Simple workers, on the other hand, would simply be expected to be cooperative in the group.

Wolff therefore proposes to restructure the corporate culture. For example, more emphasis should be placed on cooperation in filling management posts. "It is not enough to rewrite the job advertisements, you also have to change the daily work routine and how executives are perceived by others," explains Wolff.


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