The flaws of ‘I’m in charge!’ leadership

April 27, 2011, 2:31 PM UTC

Many bosses think that their strongest management tool is the power that comes with their title, but there are far more effective ways to lead your staff.

By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, contributors

FORTUNE — Most people think that power and authority are what make a boss fully effective. The more power, the better the boss.

Films, popular literature, and television foster the stereotype that a good leader is one who wields power visibly and says, “I’m in charge” in word, deed, and demeanor.

But this is not necessarily so. The latest piece of evidence to undermine this popular view comes from researchers Leigh Plunkett Tost, Francesca Gino, and Richard P. Larrick, who argue in a working paper recently published online by Harvard Business School, “…when a leader feels a heightened sense of power, he or she tends to dominate group discussions and interactions, thereby suppressing contributions from other team members and consequently decreasing team performance.”

In other words, bosses that view their jobs in terms of “I’m the boss!” tend to monopolize discussions with their staff. That both limits the time available for others to express their ideas and tells them, in effect, “your ideas are less important than mine.” The outcome, of course, is fewer ideas and less innovation.

However, power, or authority, itself isn’t to blame. What matters is how the people who possess authority think of it. In our own research and experience, we’ve seen that many bosses think it’s the key way they get others to do what needs doing. Though they seldom use the words outright, their message is unmistakable: “Do what I say because I’m the boss. I’m in charge.”

Consider this in the context of what bosses – managers and leaders – actually do. A boss is someone responsible for the performance of others. She fulfills that responsibility by influencing others — by shaping and making a difference in others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings — in ways that make them more productive individually and as a group.

A manager’s core task is to influence others. But what is the most effective way to do that?

Conventional wisdom may suggest that your key tool of influence is the power or formal authority that comes with your title. But if you base your efforts as a boss on that false wisdom, you’re likely to be less effective than you want to be, need to be, and could be.

The research we mentioned above is only the latest evidence that power and authority are flawed tools of influence. Other evidence shows that those who focus on their own power tend to treat others as objects, to be less open to others’ points of view, to stereotype others, and to be so goal-oriented that they see others only as means to an end. In short, if you tend to focus on “I’m the boss!” you’re more likely to devalue others and what they have to offer. Not a great way to build commitment and elicit the best efforts of those who work for you.

But if relying on your formal authority isn’t the best way to influence others, what is?

All sources of influence, other than coercion, are built on trust — the confidence people have that you will do the right thing. Even authority ultimately depends on trust.

People’s trust in you consists of two key components: their belief in your competence and their faith in your character. People believe you’re competent when they think you know what to do and how to do it. They don’t expect you to be the most knowledgeable. It’s not possible for you to keep up with the technical side of everyone’s work. But you need to know enough to make good decisions, exercise sound judgment, set proper priorities, and move work forward.

People believe in your character when they understand and have confidence in your intentions, your values and standards, what you truly care about, and your emotional maturity. Competence alone won’t get you far if people don’t know or have confidence in you.

Authority and power won’t elicit from people the care and commitment that good work demands. Trust will. If people don’t trust you, almost nothing else you do or say will matter. Being an effective manager and leader begins with people’s belief in your competence and character.

No doubt, an “I’m the boss!” approach is called for in certain situations, usually in times of crisis when people need a strong, directive voice. Most of the time, though, your club of power and authority is best kept on the shelf, where it’s visible but seldom used.

Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Kent Lineback, a writer with 30 years of management experience, are co-authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader.

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