Leadership is a constant struggle between the use and influence of power and the need to develop respect. While many leaders have found success through a process of intimidation and rudeness, others have found success through fair and respectful oversight. Nevertheless, research is telling us that the fair approach is not necessarily the most successful.

In the Harvard Business Review article, Why Fair Bosses Fall Behind, the title question is addressed. Lab studies and responses from hundreds of corporate decision makers and employees began with the age-old question, “Should leaders be loved or feared?”. Going a step further, the researchers in this study also asked, “Can you have respect and power?” The findings were clear. It’s hard to gain both. To solidify that point, the study also yielded another consistent piece of information expressed in a range of industries: “Decisions about high-level promotions most often center on perceptions of power, not of fairness”.

According to the study, a very similar preference was demonstrated by students in a lab setting.

Each witnessed a “manager” telling an employee about a compensation decision. Manager A communicated the decision rudely, Manager B with respect. The students were then assigned to work in a group led by the manager they’d observed; afterward they rated their leader’s power. Rude Manager A consistently scored higher than respectful Manager B—even though there was no difference in how they’d treated the participants themselves.

By observing both the rude and respectful behavior, students had enough sensory influence to create a true bias.

It is easy to argue that extremes on either side of power or fairness are faulty, but what does this research tell up-and-coming leaders who are working to solidify the push and pull of their leadership style? It suggests that a leadership approach devoid of power may struggle, especially when a stronger example of power already exists as a comparison for others in the workplace. It would also suggest that a very serious, direct approach when beginning a leadership position would be taken more seriously than an approach of fairness, kindness, and mutual respect.

This discussion brings up the familiar question, “Is it better to be liked or respected?” Research is telling us that leaders who push hard for policy, process, and results in spite of relationships or kindness have a distinct advantage over those who choose the inverse path. Research is also telling us that “being liked” is secondary to success. Therefore, it is easy to understand the influence of a stronger, meaner leader. However, while these “superleaders” may demand more respect and higher achievement in the workplace, employee burnout can quickly become a side effect. C. K. Marshida’s article Employee Dissatisfaction Leads to Burnout, discusses this issue and suggests that employees are the backbone of the organization. She says that when the employees are fractured, the organization cannot stand strong.

In Susan E. Jackson and Randall S. Schuler’s article Preventing Employee Burnout, some solutions for avoiding employee burnout are proposed. They say,

In addition to increasing employees' feelings of control, participation in decision making may help prevent burnout by clarifying role expectations and giving employees an opportunity to reduce some of [their] role conflicts.


It is clear that stronger, more direct leaders will be perceived as more influential and more successful. However, strong leaders should leverage strategies for creating employee buy-in and employee empowerment. This will help to avoid employee burnout and sustain a stronger organization over time.

It may be hard to act in a way that puts relationships and friendships in jeopardy, but if relationships and friendships are the backbone of your leadership style, you may find it harder to gain respect and authority.

In considering the development of positive relationships and friendships in the workplace, it is better to understand them as a welcome side effect (when they happen) to a leadership style. It is important to keep the idea of fairness in terms of “what is fair for the organization” and not “for the individual”. While this can be perceived as calloused to individual employees, the consistency of a global vision helps remove bias or narcissism from the chain of command.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN

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