In a recent study, my colleagues and I considered how formal power influences how people see the social world. Specifically, we were interested in whether leaders were able to discern the interpersonal relationships in the organization better than non-leaders. This is important because leaders use their knowledge of social relationships in a manner of ways to help the organization operate more efficiently and perform better. For example, leaders determine others’ level of responsibility, work assignments, team membership and performance and promotions. Having a more accurate view of who are friends within the organization might help these important activities.
However, not all relationships are positive (friendship), some are negative (dislike), and have deleterious effects on work. Knowing that two people have a personal conflict, or dislike each other, can be critically important. For example, when assigning tasks that require teamwork or determining who to promote, leaders want to make decisions that don’t threaten work performance. Thus, it isn’t just whether the leader knows about relationships in general–it is important to know if the relationships between people are positive or negative.
Given the importance of leader knowledge of social relationships at work, one question to ask is ‘will leaders pay more attention to positive or negative ties in the workplace?’ To answer this, we looked at how power influences the way people think and act—something called situated focus theory of power. Power allows a person to ignore some information and focus on other information, while low power individuals have a harder time switching attention. This is because powerful people are less dependent on others to get what they want. You could say they have more freedom to think about some things compared to others. Low power individuals are more likely to focus on the broad spectrum of activities in the workplace because they are less able to control their outcomes, and they depend on leaders to get what they want. Therefore, high power individuals can focus on things that are related to their goals more so than low power individuals.
Because formal leaders can focus on their own goals, which pertain to the positive performance of employees and teams, they will be more likely to spend attention on personal relationships that impact their goals. We proposed that formal leaders will be more accurate about some ties than others; specifically, they will be more accurate about personal conflict ties in the organization than non-leaders. This is because personal conflict is disruptive to teams and organizations and can also affect workflow and cooperation— threatening the leaders’ outcomes. This is not to say they won’t pay attention to positive ties like friendships. But because of the disproportionate effects, negative ties have on work, personal conflict is often more important.
Our study showed that within the organization we studied, formal leaders were much more accurate about the negative ties in the organization than non-leaders. Leaders were also more accurate about who considered them to be a friend compared to non-leaders.
This means that your boss is probably more aware of who is not getting along than you are and might have a better sense of the social landscape overall. This makes sense, of course, for the other reason that leaders are often the ones who are privy to conflicts due to their position as a mediator or arbiter. This might be comforting in some ways and not in others. If the leader is more tuned in to personal conflicts at work, they are probably better positioned to make informed decisions on personnel. At the same time, they might be more aware of your negative ties than you are, and who dislikes them in the organization.
It is important to give two caveats to this research. First, this research was in a specific kind of organization of about 50 people, co-located in a single floor of an office building. Supervisors and subordinates had the opportunity to observe and interact with each other quite often, so not all organizations will have the same phenomenon. Second, even though leaders were found to be more accurate, people on average are relatively inaccurate about social ties at work. Power can improve the fidelity of negative and positive tie perceptions, but we should still be cautious about making assumptions about who are friends and enemies.