Power dynamics get in the way of collaboration. We probably all knew this was true. But I just heard a story on NPR about a study that proves it – and what is really interesting is some of the specific dynamics the research uncovered. The study, conducted by Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, found that when teams made of people with equal amounts of power as measured by organizational rank were given an assignment, the teams with higher rank members had a harder time reaching consensus. They spent less time talking about the task at hand, and more time talking about other things, time vying for position and in conflict over who should be leading. In addition, they withheld information from each other and are less creative when they have to coordinate with other powerful people than they are when working on problems on their own.
Of course, this was an experiment so you might question the extent to which it applies to real life. But the research was done in a real organization, and as I listened while I drove I thought to myself about how much the results replicate what I have experienced in the organizations in which I have worked. Sometimes I have thought that I would rather not move up the ranks, because the higher you go the more the conversations seem to be about rank itself than about actually getting work done. When I left my last organization, I did so in part because I had come to the conclusion that at as I moved up in that organization I actually had less ability to get things done since everyone around me at that level had the same amount of power, and everything worth doing involved working across organizational boundaries. I stepped out of a formal position of authority because I wanted to practice leading with influence as opposed to positional power.
Since then I have moved back up in rank. But now I am keenly aware of the limits of my power and the importance of influence in getting things done. The truth is, leadership through influence is much more valuable for the changes that most interest me, which are more focused on system change both inside and outside of my current organization. And the good news is that influence requires two things: investing in building relationships, and being willing to be influenced, not just trying to influence others. This kind of reciprocity is key, and helps in deepening relationships as well. Fortunately, I truly enjoy both the relationships I have with my colleagues as well as the process of building them. I learn more about myself and grow much more in relationship than alone. I hope that is a core part of me, and would not change if I moved even higher up in rank – but who knows? The study cannot answer the question about whether the relationship between rank and ability to collaborate is the result of a treatment effect or a selection effect. Probably it is a bit of both.