Character  &  Context

Is It Better To Be Feared or Loved: Comparing Dominance Vs Prestige-based Leadership Styles

Luke Wilmhurst
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By Luke Wilmhurst

There are two classic approaches to leadership. You can win the respect and admiration of your staff, giving them the inspiration to give their very best effort.

Or you can just scare the hell out of them.

From a subordinate’s perspective, the first approach seems much more preferable. But which one is really more effective? These two leadership styles can be understood as dominance (i.e., leading via power and fear) or prestige (i.e., influence via a positive reputation) based on approaches.

Research by Joey Cheng from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented at the "Dominance and Prestige: Two Sides of Social Hierarchy" session at the SPSP Annual Convention yesterday, indicates the old school ‘command and control’ approach to management of using dominance and intimidation does get many of the desired results. However, it also has certain costs. Leaders using either approach were recognized for their authority by staff members via rankings, but the ones who resorted to intimidation were not very well-liked.

Interestingly, some of these toxic side effects experienced by work teams may not be a coincidence. Charleen Case from the Kellogg School of Management carried out a study to observe how different types of leaders act with their teams, finding dominant leaders are more likely to deliberately introduce conflict in workgroups to serve their own ends. Here, power is linked with ‘corrupt’ strategies included spreading negative information about group members, disrupting communication, and destabilizing group hierarchy.

This raises an interesting question: if both approaches to leadership work, but the dominance approach has negative side effects, why would someone chose to wield power when prestige could get the same results, while avoiding the resulting collateral damage.

USC’s Nathanael Fast proposed that context plays an important role. In circumstances where influence is scarce, leaders are more likely to use power, than other forms of softer influence. This is consistent with evolutionary arguments and findings from other areas of psychology, where scarcity has been found to inspire aggressive behavior.

An alternate view was presented by Stanford’s Lindred Greer, who argued internal factors can drive this choice. In research on how lust for power changes as one gains more of it, findings supported a somewhat counterintuitive view that appetite for power has limits, with this hunger subsiding after people have achieved a moderate level. Yet, appetite for status seemed to know no bounds, as gaining more status just created even more hunger, as people seemingly became ‘addicted’ to status. One possible explanation relates to differential levels of mutability. While power was fairly stable, status was more easily gained, and lost, supporting a rationale for wanting to not only preserve status, but gain more whenever possible.

So is prestige always a superior approach to leadership? Not always. As Cheng’s research found, adverse consequences aside, the best approach really depends on what you need it for. When tasks required convergent thinking, where there is one correct solution, dominant leaders actually attained better results. However, in tasks where creativity, innovation and other divergent thinking was required, prestige once again was the superior approach. So before choosing an own approach to leadership, considering the consequences and situational needs can lead to an optimal decision.

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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