Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Impact of Leader Dominance on Employees’ Zero-Sum Mindset and Helping Behavior

Kakkar, H and Sivanathan, N (2021) 
Journal of Applied Psychology


Leaders strive to encourage helping behaviors among employees, as it positively affects both organizational and team effectiveness. However, the manner in which a leader influences others can unintentionally limit this desired behavior. Drawing on social learning theory, we contend that a leader’s tendency to influence others via dominance could decrease employees’ interpersonal helping. Dominant leaders, who influence others by being assertive and competitive, shape their subordinates’ cognitive schema of success based on zero-sum thinking. Employees with a zero-sum mindset are more likely to believe that they can only make progress at the expense of others. We further propose that this zero-sum mindset results in less interpersonal helping among subordinates. We test our hypotheses by employing different operationalizations of our key variables in eight studies of which four are reported in the manuscript and another four in supplementary information (SI) across a combined sample of 147,780 observations. These studies include a large archival study, experiments with both laboratory and online samples, and a time-lagged field study with employees from 50 different teams. Overall, this research highlights the unintended consequences that dominant leaders have on their followers’ helping behavior by increasing their zero-sum mindset.

From the Discussion

Second, and relatedly, our results uncover the unintentional effects that leaders can have on employees’ cognitions and behaviors. These findings reflect broader observations made by social learning theorists that “job descriptions, rules, and policies are more likely to be interpreted from watching what others do than following written directives” (Davis & Luthans, 1980, p. 284). In this way, our research reveals a more subtle way in which dominant leaders by altering employees’ cognitions of success may reduce helping behavior among team members, which could eventually affect team performance. Given the beneficial effects of employee prosocial behavior on a team’s bottom line, it is entirely possible that dominant leaders may actually want their subordinates to participate in discretionary helping behaviors—in which case, they are inadvertently undermining their own aims by fostering a zero-sum mindset.

Third, the literature on dominance and prestige has typically argued that followers copy, emulate, and look up to leaders associated with prestige rather than dominance. In contrast to this, our findings offer a more nuanced understanding of this point by revealing how dominant leaders can influence employees’ cognitions and how this can trickle down to critical employee behaviors. Thus, subordinates of dominant leaders do engage in emulating their leaders but the process underlying this emulation is cognitive and less intentional.