Ideas for Leaders #482

Why Leaders Sabotage Their Own Teams

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.

Key Concept

Some leaders, afraid of losing their grip on power, will use whatever means they have to stay in their position. Their favourite strategy is to divide and conquer: they systematically prevent skilled subordinates — the greatest threats to their power — from forming alliances with other subordinates that would help push them to the top. Divide-and-conquer strategies undermine the positive, collaborative relationships that are key success factors for effective groups…but these leaders couldn't care less. 

Idea Summary

In most hierarchies, power is malleable, which means that it can change. A leader at the top can lose his or her power, and be replaced by subordinates who have, usually through their superior skills and accomplishments, managed to rise through the hierarchy. One of the characteristics of highly skilled subordinates is their ability to form alliances, enhancing their prestige by working closely with other subordinates.

Leaders respond to the threat to their power in different ways. Prestige-motivated leaders — leaders who are motivated to become leaders by their desire for respect and admiration realize that the only way for them to maintain the respect and admiration of the group is for the group to succeed. Thus, they will never undermine the effectiveness of the group even if working for the group might give a subordinate new power.

In contrast, dominance-motivated leaders — leaders who are motivated to become leaders by the desire to control and dominate others — intend to maintain their stranglehold on power, whether or not it is against the will of their subordinates. This means that thoroughly defeating every potential threat to their power is a top priority. Since alliances are often key stepping-stones in a subordinate’s rise to power, the most common strategy for dominance-motivated leaders to maintain their hold on power is to prevent the formation of alliances in any way they can — a strategy known by the familiar phrase of “divide and conquer.”

In a series of experiments at the Kellogg School of Management, researchers identified participants who reflected the characteristics of dominance-motivated leaders or prestige-motivated leaders. They put all participants in leadership situations that involved a small group of subordinates, including one subordinate with substantial skills. In three of the experiments, the leader’s hold on the position of power was ambiguous: not necessarily tenuous, but not unbreakable either. In the fourth experiment, the leader’s position was rock solid: there was no possibility of the leader losing power.

With these variables in play, the experiments confirmed the expectations. While prestige-motivated participants refused to play the divide-and-conquer game even when their leadership positions were threatened, the dominance-motivated participants, in different experiments:

  • restricted communication among subordinates
  • physically kept highly skilled subordinates apart from other team members
  • deliberately paired subordinates who (the participants believed) would not cooperate effectively.

These steps were specifically directed toward the highly skilled subordinates, that is, the ones who represented the greatest threat.

Business Application

Companies may assume that their leaders are working for the success of their units, whether such units are teams, divisions or even subsidiaries. In truth, they may be undermining their own groups in order to stay in power.

To avoid such destructive behaviours from their leaders, companies should:

  • Link leadership success to group success. Put in place leadership evaluation systems that heavily weigh the group’s success in the evaluation of the leader. Leaders who believe that they can keep a strangle-hold on their position by undermining their own group should know that they can divide-and-conquer their way to a fast exit.
  • Make leaders accountable for their actions. Leadership decisions should be transparent, and the organization must take steps against any leadership behaviour that corrupts the integrity and function of the team.
  • Institutionalize lines of communication. With institutionalized lines of collaboration and communication among team members, a destructive boss will be unable to interfere.
  • Alternate periods of stability and instability. The research shows that leaders confident that they will not be removed are less likely to engage in divide-and-conquer behaviour. At the same time, executives should have the opportunity to change leaders if warranted. One possible solution: periods of stability interspersed with short periods when a leader’s position is at stake — mirroring, in some ways, the dynamics political elections.
  • Find the right leaders. Prestige-motivated workers are often happy to stay in less flashy jobs, while the power-motivated workers are more than happy to attract attention. Dig deep within your organization to uncover the potential leaders with positive motivations.
Contact Us




Idea conceived

  • December 2014

Idea posted

  • February 2015

DOI number



Real Time Analytics