In the 1940s, three social psychologists (Kurt Lewin, Ron Lippitt, and Ralph White) conducted a series of experiments to examine how a leader’s management style affected the behavior of those they managed. The researchers observed groups of teenage boys under the supervision of three different types of leaders: autocratic (or “authoritarian”), laissez-faire, and democratic. Laissez-faire leadership, letting the boys do whatever they wanted, bred frustrated cynicism. Under authoritarianism, some boys became extremely obedient, while others fought, bullied each other, and destroyed their own toys. In the democratic groups, boys gradually became more conscientious, more tolerant of each other, less selfish, and more adult. Most interesting, when a democratic group switched to an autocratic leader, the boys’ behavior changed as well, seemingly to match the new dynamics.
A 1995 Harvard Business Review article reported the most effective managers in their research were disciplined and able to control their desire for power, so it was used for the benefit of the institution as a whole, not for their own personal aggrandizement. Furthermore, the best managers displayed emotional maturity (where there is little egotism) and a democratic, coaching managerial style.
A leader’s behavior has a dramatic impact on the team’s behavior. We all know from our own work experience just how true this is. So, as a manager and leader, ask yourself what you are doing to set the tone in your own teams. For example:
- Do you understand and use your authority responsibly?
- What do you do to encourage your staff’s feelings of competence and confidence?
- Do you provide opportunities for your staff to gain exposure to and visibility with other people and departments, particularly upward?
- Do you share information (or hoard it)?
- Do you encourage staff members to express their ideas and opinions, even if they disagree with your own?
- Do you listen at least as much as you speak?
- Do you spend at least as much time catching staff doing things right, as you do letting them know when they have done something wrong?
When authority is principle-centered and properly applied—not manipulative, exploitive, or coercive—it is an important tool for getting the job done.