Don't Let Your Voice Be Silenced by Your Boss

Why dominant bosses are bad for business

Posted Feb 18, 2014

Big hand crushing tiny powerless businessman

Letting a powerful boss intimidate you does a disservice to your team. This is the conclusion of fascinating new research into the effects of power in teams. 

The research, conducted by Tost, Gino, and Larrick, (Academy of Management Journal) shows your reactions to your team leader’s dominance can affect the performance of your team on a variety of tasks. 


Mr. Macho Manager

The traditional hierarchical notion that you probably grew up with is that power is useful in driving performance. You defer to your boss because that’s how the hierarchy works. It creates clarity, alignment, and keeps things moving.

But the authors of this study argue that in our innovation economy, where tasks require creative problem solving, information sharing, and collaboration, we need to get the value of all the members of a team—not just the limited perspective of the boss.

The Findings

The research bares it out. When team members interpret the dominant contributions of their leaders to mean that they aren’t open to or interested in the ideas of team members, they shut down. And when they shut down, the quality of the teams’ solutions goes down—way down.  (In one of the studies, only 25% of teams with dominant leaders got the right answer versus 75% of teams where leaders didn’t dominate.)

Fortunately, you can impact this very important team dynamic. The research showed that when team members ignored the signals that the team leader was closed-minded and contributed anyway, the teams were protected. 

Your Mission (should you choose to accept it)

There is a growing body of research that shows that power changes people—it changes their thoughts and their behaviors. I say that not to scare you off, but to encourage you to have some empathy for your leader. The dominant behavior is probably less about being a bad or malicious person and more about the natural response to being given authority. 

But now that you know that your team leader’s dominance is bad for your team, you need to help counteract it.  Don’t be intimidated when your leader is overpowering—stand your ground.    

Try the following:

  1. Ask your team leader to provide clear direction on what the team is solving for. That’s an appropriate place for your leader to be assertive.
  2. Pay attention to the percentage of time that you talk in meetings. Make sure you are taking up enough space, particularly as your leader starts to speak more and more.
  3. Use phrases to highlight different points of view “What if we were to look at things differently?” “How would Finance view the same situation?” “Before we come to a conclusion, what are we not taking into consideration?”
  4. Help amplify the voices of your teammates. “Ben, you have an important perspective coming from the field, what are we missing?” “Kendra, what risks aren’t we seeing?”
  5. When your team leader listens, reinforce it. “Thanks for facilitating that discussion—I think we came to a really good solution.” “We’re so lucky to have such a diverse and talented team.”

If your team is accountable for brining innovative new solutions to your organization, you need make sure that you bring your full value—and that of your teammates—into team discussions.  In the moment, that might feel like you’re standing up to your boss, but remember, you’re helping her look good in the long run.