DAVID GREENE, HOST:
People in positions of power – world leaders, lawmakers, maybe CEOs – often have to collaborate with one another. Sometimes they’re trying to make a decision about something. Sometime they’re trying to come up with a creative way of doing something. Well, there’s new social science research suggesting that there’s something that gets in the way of them achieving their goals. And to understand what that is, we’re joined by NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vendantam. Hey Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi David.
GREENE: All right, so Shankar, we’re talking about people who, I guess, are used to getting what they want at moments when they’re not getting what they want, right?
VEDANTAM: Exactly. These are the people who are used to being the 800-pound gorillas in their own worlds, David. But when they have to sit with other 800-pound gorillas, they have to sort out who’s in charge. And what researchers find is that when this happens, the power dynamics can make it difficult for these people to work collaboratively. I was speaking with Angus Hildreth, he’s at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, and along with Cameron Anderson, they went to a company and had executives at this company divide themselves into four-person teams. So the first team had the four most powerful people at the company. The second team had the next four powerful people at the company and so on – 150-200 people. When the executives were asked to evaluate different candidates for a high-level position and reach a consensus, what the researchers found was that teams with less powerful executives reached consensus far more easily than teams with the high-powered executives. Here’s Hildreth.
ANGUS HILDRETH: These more powerful teams tended to focus less on what was going on the task itself and talk about other things, and they tended to vie for position in the groups. So they tended to conflict over who should be leading what. These teams failed to share all of the information they had about their own candidates with everyone else.
VEDANTAM: You know, David, the interesting thing is that we see this kind of setting all the time – managers getting together to decide something, heads of state getting together. We imagine that when these high-powered people get together to collaborate they will reach a consensus, when in fact, the fact that they are powerful can make it harder for them to collaborate.
GREENE: But wait a minute, Shankar, I mean, longer deliberation’s not necessarily a bad thing if they eventually lead to some, you know, some worthy goal. So is power always a problem here?
VEDANTAM: In fact, power is not always a bad thing. Hildreth and Anderson, in fact, find that there are advantages to power. When people work on problems on their own, giving people a sense of power actually increases their creativity, their ability to come up with novel solutions. And it’s not surprising, you feel like you have the autonomy to do things. The problem is in experiments when the researchers give people a sense of power and then ask them to do something creative in collaboration with others who are also powerful, they find something completely different. Here’s Hildreth again.
HILDRETH: We find that the high-power folk are less creative. They come up with less creative ideas than the less powerful people. It’s not that their power is making them less creative, it’s that there’s something going on when they have to coordinate with each other.
GREENE: OK, so longer deliberating – maybe never coming to some kind of consensus – and less creativity. That does sound like a problem. Is there a solution where you can get the best of both worlds? I mean, good deliberation among smart people who have power and also remain creative (laughter) in the process?
VEDANTAM: Right, so there – I think there are a couple of ideas. One of which, I think, is already in widespread practice. Many organizations have figured out that if you want to reach a deal in Congress, for example, or you want to reach an international agreement, you often have lower-ranked people meet first and try and set up a framework for agreement before you bring the big guns into the room. Another solution that Hildreth suggests, it is to allow each leader ample room to take the spotlight and establish his or her importance as a way to sort of get that out of the way and allow people to set aside the power dynamics and actually get down to work.
GREENE: So a lot of massaging of egos that needs to go on, I guess.
VEDANTAM: I’m not sure I would put it in that language David but yeah.
GREENE: OK (laughter). Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thanks David.
GREENE: That’s Shankar Vedantam. He’s NPR’s social’s science correspondent. He’s also the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It’s called Human Brain.
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