To Lead or to Be Liked: When Prestige-Oriented Leaders Prioritize Popularity Over Performance

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Abstract

Leaders often are faced with making difficult decisions for their group, such as when a course of action preferred by group members conflicts with one that is likely to optimize group success. Across 5 experiments (N = 1110), we provide evidence that a psychological orientation toward prestige (but not dominance) causes leaders to adhere publicly to group members’ desires at the expense of group task outcomes—to prioritize popularity over performance. Experiments 1–3 demonstrated that, in private, prestige-oriented leaders chose what they saw as best for group performance but that, in public, they chose whichever option was preferred by members of their group. In private, prestige-oriented leaders’ tendency to choose the performance-enhancing option was mediated by group performance motives; in public, their adherence to group preferences was mediated by social approval motives. Experiments 4 and 5 advanced the investigation by using experimental manipulations to prime an orientation toward prestige. Findings replicated those from the earlier studies: participants primed with a prestige orientation prioritized popularity over performance. Results illuminate the conditions under which “good” leaders might make poor decisions.

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