How global leaders gain power through downward deference and reduction of social distance

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We theorize about how people with positional power enact downward deference—a practice of lowering oneself to be equal to that of lower power workers—based on a study of 115 top global leaders at a large U.S. company. These leaders were charged with advancing organizational goals in foreign markets. We find that some leaders enacted downward deference when they recognized that they had less expertise, networks, and influence relative to their local subordinates. This manifested in two ways: 1) attempts to reduce social distance, which involved seeking connection, earning trust, and participating in adjacent collaboration with local subordinates; and, 2) yielding to subordinates’ expertise by privileging their judgement, transferring influence to them, and conforming to their local hierarchical expectations. Our supplementary quantitative analyses showed that previous experiences in foreign cultures, both in terms of total time spent abroad and exposure to cultures that were distant from their own, correlated with adopting downward deference. Those leaders also had higher job performance ratings, and were promoted to higher executive levels over time compared to their counterparts who did not practice downward deference. Our study expands our understanding of positional power, social distance, and the conditions under which actors practice downward deference.
Bibliographic citation: NEELEY, T., REICHE, S. (2020). How global leaders gain power through downward deference and reduction of social distance. Academy of Management Journal. doi:10.5465/amj.2019.0531.

Reference: 10.5465/amj.2019.0531 (DOI)
Date: 01/11/2020
Author(s): Tsedal Neeley; Sebastian Reiche
Document type: Article in Journal (refereed)
Department: Managing People in Organizations
Languages: English