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You can be too careful

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One of the jobs of a team leader is to make sure the team doesn’t make mistakes.

Mistakes in some settings – such as operating rooms and air traffic control towers – can be deadly. In business settings, they can result in financial losses, job layoffs and business failures.

The stakes are high, so it’s understandable that many leaders want to prevent mistakes. But new research from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School scholars suggests that too much of a prevention focus can worsen team performance.

To examine the downsides of prevention-focused leadership, Professors Matt Pearsall and Jessica Siegel Christian collaborated with Richard Burgess of the University of Pittsburgh and Angelica Leigh (PhD ’20) of Duke University conducted an experiment and published their findings in “Preventing Success: How a Prevention Focus Causes Leaders to Overrule Good Ideas and Reduce Team Performance Gains” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Their research also suggests ways that organizations and leaders can overcome the dangers of prevention focus without losing its positive effects.

The researchers looked at several questions, including:

  • Do prevention-focused leaders overcompensate and actually see mistakes that aren’t really there?
  • How does a prevention-focused leader’s behavior change team behaviors, especially when it comes to the team’s ability to recognize and take advantage of new opportunities?

Their study also raises important questions about the downside of having teams that are too aligned with their leader’s approach.

Attack and defend

One of the difficulties of studying prevention-focused leadership is that in chaotic, difficult-to-predict, real-world scenarios it’s hard to know whether different leadership choices could have produced better outcomes.

To overcome this challenge, the researchers recruited 420 individuals and assigned them to 84 five-person teams. Each team spent two hours playing an online strategy game that was originally developed to train officers in the U.S. Air Force. It involves dispatching and supporting airplanes to attack enemy targets while avoiding threats.

Each team was instructed to maximize the number of points earned by destroying as many enemy targets as possible while protecting their own forces.

Because the game is a well-understood simulation, the researchers could see when teams missed opportunities for more points by being too cautious. The five-person teams also allowed the researchers to shape the leadership style of each team leader and observe the differences between prevention-focused leaders and a control group.

Before the simulation was conducted, all participants took an assessment that evaluated their prevention and promotion focus. For half the teams, the person with the highest prevention focus was made the team leader. Those prevention-focused leaders got the same training as the other team leaders but were told to focus on the preventive aspects of the simulation – to avoid losing points to threats and to not make careless errors.

Phantom errors and missed opportunities

The UNC Kenan-Flagler researchers looked at several aspects of team and leader performance to assess how team performance differed between those led by a prevention-focused leader and the control group.

Prevention-focused leaders in the simulation were significantly more likely to engage in harmful overruling of their team’s decisions – countermanding actions that would have gained more points.

Their teams also tended to prospect less often – launching fewer missions to go after targets – and instead choosing to protect their own assets.

Prevention-focused leaders also seemed to mute their team’s positive emotions. The researchers evaluated the conversations during the game’s seven rounds of decision-making. Teams with prevention-focused leaders tended to display less positive emotion – cheerfulness, excitement, enthusiasm and so forth.

But the researchers wanted to look at another factor, besides leadership focus, that could influence team behavior. They measured a trait known as reward responsiveness, which indicates to what extent people are motivated by the prospect of achieving rewards – such as scoring points in a strategy simulation.

What would happen to teams that had high reward responsiveness whose leaders were prevention-focused? Could higher levels of reward responsiveness buffer the negative effects of prevention-focused leadership?

The answer is yes, based on the simulation results. Teams with higher reward responsiveness were more likely to continue to prospect for opportunities, even when their leader was prevention focused.

Mismatched teams

This last point suggests at least one antidote to counteract overly preventative managers. And it suggests that sometimes teams that aren’t perfectly aligned with their leaders’ approach might perform better.

That’s especially salient for teams of experts whose manager may not be as technically skilled such as a team of software developers lead by a project manager without programming skills, says Pearsall.

Organizations can take other actions ameliorate some of the downsides of prevention-focused management, he says. For example, prevention-focused managers could take more of a coaching approach. That might mean spending more time reviewing past performance – the way sports teams review game film – to assess where the team could have performed better and what mistakes they should avoid in the future.

This approach can help prevent mistakes in the future by asking “how could we have prevented this” while still giving teams a chance to find opportunities.