Dominance vs. Prestige: Good Bosses Switch Between Two Leadership Styles
Think back to the last team project you participated in at work. How did the person running the project lead the group? Did they lead by presenting a plan and using their authority to insist that others follow along? Or did the person instead lead by explaining why a particular course of action seemed like the best one, allowing others to willfully get on board?
These two leadership styles, which I and other researchers refer to as dominance and prestige, respectively, reflect two fundamental strategies people use to navigate their way through social and organizational hierarchies. Leading through dominance means influencing others by being assertive and leveraging one’s power and formal authority. Leading through prestige means displaying one’s knowledge and expertise and encouraging others to follow. In the case of dominance, employees usually have little choice but to follow the leader; when it comes to prestige, deference to the leader is more negotiable.
Dominant leaders achieve their goals by asserting their role as the boss, incentivizing people with bonuses and promotions, and coercing people with the threat of punishment. In meetings, they do most of the talking and may even lower the pitch of their voice as a way of intimidating others. Dominant leaders crave power, because power allows them to make decisions knowing that their subordinates will fall in line. As one former Apple employee said about Steve Jobs, a paradigmatic example of a dominant leader: “When Steve was pissed off about something, it got fixed at a pace I’ve never seen…people reacted that fast out of fear.”
Prestige, in contrast, means influencing others by displaying signs of wisdom and expertise and being a role model. Prestige allows people to influence others even in the absence of formal authority or power. Prestigious leaders enjoy being respected and admired, but they aren’t as interested as dominant leaders are in having power or always getting their way. Indeed, prestige-oriented leaders often allow others to set the course, while subtly directing people from behind.
Neither strategy is necessarily better than the other. Some leadership situations call for dominance, whereas others call for prestige. Being maximally effective as a leader means being able to diagnose the situation and adopt the leadership approach that works best. Switching back and forth between the two approaches depends on the task at hand and one’s organizational culture.
Which situations call for dominant leadership?
Dominance works best when the leader’s job is to get everyone aligned quickly and moving in the same direction. When a company has a clear strategy for a new product launch, for example, a leader needs to provide firm directives to get the marketing, distribution, and sales people working together and moving in one direction. When there is a clear vision, and the challenge is getting your team to enact that vision, dominance is an effective way to create a unified front. When facing tight deadlines, dominance is needed to generate rapid and well-coordinated responses. And during times of organizational crisis or change, dominance may be needed to manage various stakeholders with opposing viewpoints. Such situations often call for leaders to make strong executive decisions without worrying too much about whether someone might get offended. And in organizational cultures marked by a clear chain of command, in which leaders are expected to give orders and employees are expected to follow them, dominance also fits well.
The problem with dominance, of course, is that many people don’t enjoy being ordered around. So dominant leaders tend not to be liked very much, and their leadership style can undermine relationships with colleagues and subordinates. In research I’ve conducted with colleagues, we have found that dominant leaders are also easily threatened by other talented team members who might be in a position to outshine the leader. As a consequence, when there appears to be a rising star on the team, dominant leaders sometimes try to suppress that person by ostracizing them, closely monitoring them to make sure they don’t get out of line, and preventing them from forming close friendships with other team members.
To lead effectively, dominant leaders should try to harness their egos and overcome the relationship difficulties that often result from their dominant leadership style. One way to do this is through perspective taking. As a default, dominant leaders aren’t very good at seeing the world from other people’s points of view. Yet, considering other’s perspectives can help leaders understand what motivates employees and makes them feel valued, and identify when others are frustrated with how they are being treated. Perspective taking allows leaders to build relationships and foster trust—and defuse some of the interpersonal problems associated with dominant leadership.
Which situations call for prestige?
Prestige works best when a leader is trying to empower his or her subordinates. If a marketing team is charged with creating an innovative new advertising campaign, for example, a prestigious leader can release the constraints on team members and encourage them to think outside the box. This doesn’t necessarily mean being less hands-on, but it does mean being less directive. Rather than mandating their own vision, as dominant leaders typically do, prestige-oriented leaders instead facilitate the team’s vision by encouraging team members to actively discuss their ideas and by synthesizing their contributions into a coherent strategy.
Prestigious leaders provide essential contributions to idea-generating and decision-making processes, but at the same time, they listen to and incorporate input from others. Listening is as important as talking for prestigious leaders. This creates a safe environment where team members feel respected and free to innovate and generate creative solutions. In this sense, leading via prestige often means leading from behind. Prestige works well in organizational cultures marked by relatively egalitarian relationships among coworkers, in which people at all levels of the organization are used to having their viewpoints heard and respected.
But just as there are dangers to dominance, so too are there pitfalls to prestige. For example, prestige-oriented leaders sometimes care a little too much about what others think of them, and this can lead them to make bad decisions. Recent research my student Charleen Case and I conducted, which is currently under peer review, asked leaders to choose between options likely to enhance the team’s performance (for example, asking workers to come in on Saturday to finish a project) and options that were more popular among team members (trying to squeeze the extra work in during the week). The more leaders cared about prestige, the more they tended to make the popular choice. (However, we don’t know whether performance dropped as a result.)
To overcome the problem of caring too much about what others think, leaders can be more transparent about difficult decisions. Explaining to coworkers and subordinates how particular decisions came to be allows them to feel like part of the process and helps preserve trust even when unpopular choices are made. Similarly, the awkward edge of delivering negative feedback to an employee can be blunted by actively coaching the employee and providing them with the means to do better. While avoiding uncomfortable social situations can be a problem for prestige-oriented leaders, adopting an honest and straightforward approach helps keep their relationships intact.
The Italian philosopher and political strategist Machiavelli famously wrote that “[People] are driven by two principal impulses, either by love or by fear.” The best leaders succeed by understanding both. Having both dominance and prestige in their leadership toolkit can help people respond adaptively to a variety of workplace situations, as well as a range of organizational cultures. Maturing as a leader means being able to diagnose what type of leadership is needed and deploy the strategy that is likely to work best.
Jon Maner is a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.