Study: People Less Willing to Tolerate Mistakes From Dominant Aggressive Leaders

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jul 9, 2019


A series of studies outlined in the Harvard Business Review says that people are harder on their leaders who’ve made a mistake when that leader is seen as aggressive and dominant. 

The researchers sorted “leaders” into those who got into their positions through dominance (being assertive and forceful in getting their opinions across and by not hesitating to influence others through coercive or intimidating tactics) versus those who arrived there via prestige (acting as a teacher, sharing their knowledge, skills, and expertise with others in the group). They conducted several studies examining how mistakes are perceived when made by either of the two types. 

In one, they looked at professional ice hockey players and found, after examining two full seasons of player data, that higher paid players noted for dominance received greater penalties from referees than those associated with prestige, roughly 13 percent. Next, they performed a lab experiment where a trained actor led a group on a problem solving task; the group would then discover a mistake which could have come from either a computer glitch or the leader breaking the rules for his own benefit. They found that those group leaders associated with dominance traits were punished more frequently than those associated with prestige traits. In order to rule out gender differences, the researchers repeated this study with a female leader, and found consistent results. 

The researchers believe that people perceive dominance-oriented leaders as having more intentionality behind their actions, and so are less likely to believe they would make an honest mistake versus having some sort of goal behind it. They noted, too, that people generally tend to view such leaders as more selfish and unethical overall. Conversely, the researchers said that leaders associated with prestige traits tend to already have a certain “moral credit” behind them, and so their actions are less likely to be viewed as wrong or immoral. 

Ultimately, according to the researchers, dominance-oriented leaders are more likely to face backlash, and so should adopt more prestige-focused traits in times of crisis.

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