On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

I think, therefore you are -- understanding people in power

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Does your team leader really know what your team is thinking? The thinker

Being in charge can change the way we view others and how we interpret what others believe.  Since we all interact with people in positions of power, and most of us also occupy a position of power in some aspect of our lives (at work, at play, at home), it can be helpful to understand how being in charge affects our perceptions of others

Psychologists have long known that humans naturally engage in some form of social comparisons, where we observe others and notice how they are similar or dissimilar from us. This is one way in which we learn what is appropriate in social settings. People naturally watch one another and attempt to interpret what others are doing and thinking. But what about people with power, such as a team leader who has control over resources and decision making authority? What do we do differently when we have power?

Recent research. Jennifer Overbeck from the University of Utah and Vitaliya Droutman from the University of Southern California recently published research in the journal Psychological Science that reveals what power can do to our perception of others. In a series of studies they showed that people in power are more likely to "self-anchor."

What does that mean? It means they are more likely to use themselves to determine what other people think or feel. More specifically, Overbeck and Droutman's research suggests that when people are in a position of power, they are more likely to:

  • Ascribe a trait to their team that they themselves possess (my team is like me)
  • Assume that their team believes what they believe
  • Use how they are feeling to assess how others are feeling (she feels what I feel)

This is particularly true with regard to negative traits and feelings. Note that self-anchoring is not always a conscious judgment on the part of the leader. A leader doesn't have to knowingly think, "I believe X, so my team must as well." When I'm in a position of power my self-anchoring may increase without my being aware that I'm doing it.

My observations. The research findings are consistent with what I've seen in my work with team leaders. For example, when confronted with feedback that their team sees or believes something differently than they do, leaders often express surprise. "Really? How could my team think that?" Interestingly, leaders may notice that their boss is "self-anchoring," but often won't notice that they are doing it as well.

These findings apply not only to the formal leader, but to anyone who is given the authority to take actions and make decisions within a specific domain for a period of time. For example, when a team member is put in charge of a program or is deferred to regularly as the expert in a particular area, they experience what is referred to as a "power-action" link. Over time, having the latitude to make decisions confers a sense of power and in turn, can make any team member prone to the self-anchoring bias as well.

And let's face it, it is easier for me to justify making decisions "for my team" if I believe they think or feel the same way I do. So in many ways, self-anchoring can be self-reinforcing.

Implications. What does all this mean for team effectiveness? Below are a few suggestions for team leaders and team members:

Team leader (or if you are in a role where you can make decisions)

  • Recognize that when you are in "power" you are prone to self-anchoring
  • Be aware that when you are in a bad mood or feel weak in a particular area, you can be even more prone to attribute that emotion or weakness to your team
  • Be on the lookout for self-anchoring; ask yourself "how confident am I that I really know what my team is thinking and feeling?"
  • If your team's perceptions about a particular topic are important to you, and they often should be, make the time to talk with team members about the topic

Team member

  • Help your team leader "calibrate" – don't assume she should know what you and the rest of your team are thinking
  • Find opportunities to share your views and perceptions with the team leader, including "why" you think or feel that way
  • Don't be upset if the team leader is surprised that you see things "that way" or suggests that you don't represent the rest of the team. Those are natural defensive reactions a leader exhibits when he is surprised. Agree that you don't represent others, just yourself
  • Acknowledge the team leader's authority and encourage her to talk with others on the team so she can "make a fully informed decision"