Maximising your organisation’s effectiveness requires leaders who tailor their leadership approach based on the organisational culture, their team’s dynamics, and the specific task at hand. This article describes two distinct leadership approaches – dominance and prestige – each with their own advantages and drawbacks. To help your organisation reach its potential, select leaders who know how to leverage both.
Selecting people to help provide leadership is one of the most critical decisions an executive can make. When it comes to selecting an appropriate leader for a department, project, or any given team within your organisation, there are many factors you might consider. For instance, you probably will evaluate each candidate’s domains of expertise, level of experience, and the extent to which he or she is connected to key people and sources of information in your organisation and in the broader field or market. Indeed, these criteria are important to consider when evaluating whether a person has the knowledge, skill, and resources your team needs to achieve its goals. What these criteria fail to capture, however, is the extent to which a given candidate’s leadership approach is – or is not – congruent with the specific goals and nature of your team.
Recent research on leadership strategies1 and the motivations that underpin those strategies2,3 highlights the importance of looking beyond the knowledge, skill, and resources a potential leader possesses. Rather than focussing merely on what a person could offer your team as their leader, you also should consider why it is that that person wants to lead. What are the person’s underlying motivations for seeking the leadership role? In looking beyond candidates’ whats and focussing attention on their whys, you will be able to get a clearer sense of how they would behave as your team’s leader.
We and our colleagues have determined that, broadly speaking, there are two motivations that drive people to seek positions of leadership – dominance and prestige – and those motivations shape the strategies people use to lead others.4 On One hand, Dominance is characterised by a desire for the authority, control, and power that comes with formal positions of leadership. Prestige, on the other hand, is characterised by a desire for the admiration, respect, and elevated status often bestowed upon leaders. Although these two motivations are far from mutually exclusive – people can desire both formal authority and others’ admiration – the extent to which a person is more oriented toward dominance versus prestige has important implications for their leadership behaviour.
As leaders, dominance-oriented people enjoy making decisions for their team, giving orders, and getting things going. They are interpersonally assertive, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In meetings, they often do most of the talking and may even lower the pitch of their voice as a means to intimidate others.5 Dominance-oriented leaders often leverage their power and positions of formal authority to coerce people into doing what they want them to do. For instance, managers who are highly dominance-oriented tend to incentivise their employees with bonuses and promotions and coerce them with the threat of punishment. In essence, they are less concerned with fostering positive relationships with their team members than they are with getting things done – the way they see fit.
Prestige-oriented leaders behave quite differently. Because prestige-oriented people care deeply about their relationships with team members, they avoid using intimidation or coercion. Instead, they try to display signs of wisdom and expertise,6 so that they can be seen as a role model for their team. Unlike highly dominance-oriented leaders, leaders who are predominantly prestige-oriented are often able to influence their team because they are well-liked by their followers.7 Prestige-oriented leaders are not as assertive as dominance-oriented leaders, instead tending to lead from behind – providing guidance and direction but allowing their team the freedom to make some decisions on their own.
When it comes to selecting a leader whose approach is in line with your team’s goals, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Whether your team would benefit most from the kind of leadership strategies employed by someone who is predominantly dominance-oriented, predominantly prestige-oriented, or a mix of both largely depends on contextual factors. To determine which kind of leadership approach best suits your team, you should consider your team’s goals and the type of organisational culture you seek to cultivate.
About the Authors
Charleen R. Case (left)is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Her work explores how fundamental motives shape organisational behaviour in the context of leadership, social hierarchy, and coalitions. Jon K. Maner (right)is Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. His work applies an integration of social psychology and evolutionary psychology to research on social relationships, leadership, and social hierarchy.
1. Cheng, J. T., & Tracy, J. L. (2014). Toward a unified science of hierarchy: Dominance and prestige are two fundamental pathways to human social rank. In J. T. Cheng, J. L. Tracy, C. Anderson (Eds.). The Psychology of Social Status (pp. 3-27). Springer New York.
2. Case, C.R., & Maner, J.K. (2015). When and why power corrupts: An evolutionary perspective. In J. H. Turner, R. Machalek, and A. Maryanski (Eds.). Handbook on evolution and society: Toward an evolutionary social science(pp. 460-473). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
3. Maner, J. K., & Case, C. R. (2016). Dominance and Prestige: Dual Strategies for Navigating Social Hierarchies. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 129-180.
5. Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Ho, S., & Henrich, J. (2016). Listen, follow me: Dynamic vocal signals of dominance predict emergent social rank in humans. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,145(5), 536-547.
6. Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(3), 165-196.
7. Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Foulsham, T., Kingstone, A., & Henrich, J. (2013). Two ways to the top: Evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 103-125.
8. Tiedens, L. Z., Unzueta, M. M., & Young, M. J. (2007). An unconscious desire for hierarchy? The motivated perception of dominance complementarity in task partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(3), 402-414.