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The fear of losing power deters leaders from delegating

29 January 2020
Sanne Feenstra

Powerful leaders experience stress when they are at risk of losing their powerful position. This can lead to problems in organizations that work with self-managing teams, for example. When leaders are afraid that they will lose their position of power, they are less willing to delegate responsibilities and authority to their employees. This is the conclusion reached by Sanne Feenstra, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 3 February.

If a leader’s dominant position is quite unstable, it can result in them becoming suspicious of their employees. ‘In such precarious situations, leaders think that employees are out to take their job and therefore cannot be trusted,’ says Feenstra. ‘This mistrust then means that leaders are unwilling to relinquish important tasks and decisions.’ Feenstra shows that this phenomenon mainly occurs when leaders are confronted with more experienced employees. It is precisely these senior employees who tend to become less involved in important decisions when leaders fear for their position.

Coaching for leaders

According to Feenstra, it is essential that HR professionals are aware that leaders are adversely affected by the instability of their positions. Although it is not easy to eliminate this instability during reorganizations, organizational changes or mergers, for example, it is important that attention is paid to the consequences, Feenstra states. This can be achieved, for example, by coaching leaders in how to deal with uncertainty or by guiding them through changes. This way, leaders will experience less stress, they will mistrust their employees less and they will be more willing to share their power'.

Power doesn’t always corrupt

Previous research has shown that those in positions of authority tend to behave less ethically as they gain more power. Feenstra studied the behaviour of leaders in situations where those in power behaved in a more exemplary manner. She concludes that leaders behave less unethically when they are not given the space or opportunity to justify their own unethical behaviour to themselves. ‘Organizations that are keen to tackle the corrupting effects of power would be well advised to leave little room for self-justification,’ says Feenstra. ‘They could do this by establishing clear rules and avoiding ethical “grey areas”, for example.’

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Last modified:19 March 2020 2.37 p.m.
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