Cognitive Dominance and Leader-Follower Exchange Dynamics

The situations of mental slavery and unquestioned surrender that prevent followers from exploring and expressing alternative worldviews in a fast-changing world can be deeply damaging for all stakeholders.

Leadership has always been a topical subject in both academic research and the business world. The success of an organization is often attributed to its leader. Going by the researches in social psychology, people use two primary strategies to navigate up in the hierarchy. The first strategy is ‘dominance’ where people try to attain social rank by coercion, intimidation, fear or manipulation of behaviour, cognition and emotions. The second strategy is ‘prestige’, where a person aims at claiming a leadership position through the display of valued knowledge and skills. A research work by Kakkar and Sivanathan published in HBR in 2017, revealed that dominant leaders become more appealing than prestige leaders when the environment is ridden with social and economic uncertainty. The reason for the same is partly rooted in people’s psychological desire for restoring their sense of personal control which is threatened in times of uncertainty. Prestige based leaders are considered more likeable and appreciated for their warmth, but leaders associated with dominance tend to get perceived as assertive, confident and decisive. 

The presence of hierarchy is a universal feature in groups, organizations and society. Leaders matter greatly, for they are the key driver of effective mobilization of all resources. However, at the heart of organizational success lies the intricate exchange between leaders and followers. If this exchange doesn’t happen effectively, success gets questionable. We all remember our first boss for they have a lasting influence on how we perceive leaders. Fortunate are those who find a boss with whom they feel like nurturing a long-term relationship for it is mutually rewarding in terms of personal learning and growth. However, the reverse can also be true. You get a boss whose presence makes your work experience suffocating. This can happen if the work culture is driven by domination, or by one-sided communication. The employees here feel coerced and fear to engage in a dialogue. The relationship, risk taking the form of dominator(leader) and the dominated (followers), by virtue of their position and authority. The purpose of this article is to reflect on leadership, followership, leader-follower exchange from the lens of cognitive dominance matrix as proposed by Dr Subhash Sharma presented below.

(II) Unquestioned Surrender

(III) Create an Alternative Worldview
(I) Mental Slavery(IV) Resist the Dominance

The theory of cognitive dominance talks about the conscious effort on the part of the “dominator” to manipulate the dominated, through language, ideas, theories or metaphors.

The first quadrant of the matrix’ mental slavery‘ is characterized by an ‘imposition’ of a particular worldview by the dominator and its unquestioned acceptance by the dominated. It is important to note here that while leadership and hierarchies exist universally, they may vary from one country to another. So, a leader’s behaviour may be strongly influenced by the working environment and the norms and values of the culture where he/she is operating. For example, in a culture of high-power distance, a leader may demonstrate dominance adopting an authoritarian style. The employees may be forced to follow all commands to save their job, but this long-term mental slavery can be damaging for their self-growth.

The second quadrant talks of ‘unquestioned surrender’, a state where the dominated is incapable of identifying cognitive dominance. It goes to an extent where the dominated himself becomes the defender of dominators worldview. In a leader-follower interaction, factors that can lead to such a scenario could be the strong personality of leader characterized more by dominance and less by prestige or maybe the inexperience of the follower. Whatever the cause be, such a scenario can be harmful to organizational health. It can be overly damaging in middle and senior-level jobs that require employees to draw upon their business intelligence and creativity. Both the leader and follower will be deprived of learning and growth for it will kill all opportunities of discussion, and dialogue, hampering innovation.

The third quadrant of the matrix is characterized by the dominator’s claim of universality of his worldview, but the follower presents an ‘alternative worldview’. With increasing access to technology, creating opportunities for new forms of democratic spaces for interactions, rapid communication impacting the way we interact with each other this is not an unusual phenomenon. Leaders here will have to demonstrate listening, empathy and perhaps embrace the alternative worldview, presented by the follower if it seems like a more viable option. In this era of 2020, able leaders and competent followers collaborating constructively, appreciating each other’s viewpoint can pave the way for high performing learning organizations.

The fourth quadrant talks of ‘resistance’. It is characterized by a direct imposition of the dominator’s worldview, and its rejection by the dominated. In such a scenario, the followers are not motivated to follow the leader, for they may feel their inputs though valuable is not valued. Followers may resist such dominance by switching themselves off from the cognitive control mechanisms. 

Reflecting on the leader-follower dynamics from the cognitive dominance perspective provides insights into the darker side of leadership, where leaders can do more harm than good consciously or unintentionally by unnecessary dominance. Analyzing dominance in the light of employee/ follower competence presents us with other possible situations. Situation 1 characterized by high follower competence and high leader dominance, can create unwanted conflicts, disagreements and dissatisfaction for both the parties. Situation 2 characterized by high competence of followers and low dominance by leader, may provide avenues of creating alternative worldviews. Followers here may perceive low dominance as autonomy and work harder to prove their merit. Situation 3 characterized by low competence of followers and high domination of leader is more likely to lead to mental slavery or unquestioned surrender. High task orientation and optimizing on leader competence and domination may become a necessity to get the work done. However, the worst case scenario can be a situation of low leader dominance and low follower competence where keeping the work rolling itself may become a challenge. It is important to note here that other extraneous or moderating variables may change these hypothesized outcomes.

Cognitive dominance in any form must be discouraged. Organizations succeed or fail not only based on how well their leaders lead but also based on how well their followers follow. The situation of mental slavery and unquestioned surrender that prevents followers from expressing and exploring alternative worldviews in a fast-changing world can be deeply damaging for all stakeholders. Organizations build their present and shape their future with the combined efforts of followers and leader. Providing a domination free atmosphere where all parties can enter in a free discourse can lead to mental liberation and high performing organizations.

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