There are two sides to leadership. On the positive side, great leaders can make a big difference in the world. They can inspire others to share a vision and to work together to achieve great things. On the negative side, there are comforts that come with leadership roles including higher salaries, respect, and other perks. So, when someone attains a leadership role, they are reluctant to give it up.
Unfortunately, the behaviors that people may engage in to hold onto a leadership role once they have it can undermine the effectiveness of the group. An interesting paper by Charleen Case and Jon Maner in the December, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored some of these behaviors.
In one study, undergraduates were told that they were going to be put into small groups with the chance to solve puzzles for payment. Each participant was housed in a different room, so that every participant could be led to believe that he or she was being put in a leadership role. The participants were told they were given their leadership role because they scored well on a pre-test for the game. Leaders were allowed to determine how the prize payment from the game was allocated to the players.
In the first round of the game, the participant solved a series of puzzles and was told their fellow teammates were doing so as well. The leader was then given feedback that one of the other players did better than the leader in this first round. After that, some people were told that the group was going to have a chance to interact via chat and they could decide to elect a new leader. Other people were told that the group was going to chat, but the leaders were told that their position was secure. A third group was told that the group would converse, and no mention of leadership was made. The leaders were allowed to tell each team member how many chat messages they were allowed to send.
Finally, after the study, each person was assessed for his or her leadership style. Some people tend to be dominant leaders in which they want to dominate others in order to be the leader. Other people lead in a prestige-motivated way in which they gain the admiration and respect of those they lead.
The results are a bit complicated, though they make sense. When people had a leadership strategy focused on dominating others (rather than gathering their respect), they limited access to the chat for the skilled team member in the condition in which their leadership could be challenged. So, leaders protected their position from the most threatening team member when they felt they could lose their position.
Limiting communication among team members is generally a bad thing to do, because team members (and particularly skilled ones) could provide advice that would help others.
A second strategy used a similar method, except that leaders had the option of determining the location where team members would sit. In this case, leaders with a dominating leadership style whose leadership was in jeopardy would isolate the most talented team member from everyone else. Those with a respect-based leadership style or dominating leaders whose position was not in jeopardy selected seating strategies that integrated the talented group member with the other members of the team.
These studies suggest that people who are prone to want to protect their power by dominating others will engage in behaviors that promote their own interests over those of the team in cases where their power is in jeopardy. A limitation of these studies is that the participants were all college students who probably do not have a lot of leadership experience. That said, these tendencies are likely to influence even more experienced leaders, and so they provide a tendency that leaders need to overcome to ensure that they act in the best interests of their team.