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Business Prof's Research in Wall Street Journal

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Imagine this scenario: a new leader is assigned to a team and they start working on a new project almost immediately.

Stephen J. SauerImagine that in one case, the incoming leader has high status (older, more experienced, better credentials). In the other case, the incoming leader has low status. How should each of these new leaders take charge of their team and establish themself in the leadership role?

What behaviors will gain them the respect and credibility of their subordinates and allow them to effectively lead the team to accomplish its task?

In a new study that was featured in the February 26-27 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Stephen J. Sauer, an assistant professor at Clarkson University’s School of Business, explored this question.

In two experimental studies, Sauer found that when the new leader has high status, subordinates view the leader more favorably if he or she uses a participative leadership style, asking for their input on decisions and work assignments, rather than a directive style, telling them what to do.

But for low status leaders, asking for input from subordinates is seen as displaying a lack of self-confidence, and team members prefer someone who isn’t afraid to boss them around.

“When the low status leader used a directive style, study participants gave him a relatively high effectiveness score: 4.25 on a scale of 7. When the leader was more democratic, he was downgraded to 3.55,” says Sauer. “By contrast, the high status leader only scored a 3.66 when he told people what to do, but was bumped up to 4.35 when he asked for team members’ input.”

In addition, Sauer found that teams whose leaders were viewed more favorably because of their status and leadership style performed as much as 20 percent better on a complex group task.

Teams led by high status, participative leaders performed best, followed by teams led by low status, directive leaders. Teams led by low status, participative leaders performed worst of all.

“For new managers, this implies that one needs to match one’s leadership style to people’s perceptions of one’s status,” says Sauer. “If a new leader has high status, he or she can be more participative and people will follow; but if the new leader lacks status or credibility, he or she must exert some control right from the outset.

Sauer says that this runs counter to a number of today’s popular management texts that advise using a participative style in all contexts. “For some new leaders, being too participative is simply an invitation for people to not bother following their lead, and can be detrimental for team performance,” he says.

The research is from "Taking the Reins: The Effects of New Leader Status and Leadership Style on Team Performance," by Stephen J. Sauer, forthcoming in Journal of Applied Psychology.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in six alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world's pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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