BYU research suggests pairing a Tony Stark with a Pepper Potts in business

By Kayla Franson

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, March 4 2013 4:40 p.m. MST

Katie Liljenquist, photographed in 2009, researched how socially awkward teams perform better.

Mark A. Philbrick, Brigham Young University

Enlarge photo»

PROVO — It turns out that Tony Starks and Pepper Potts of the business world should be paired up more often, and not just because they make an interesting couple.

High-power people like the Starks character, which debuted 50 years this month in comic books and today drives major movie vehicles, should work with low-power people like Potts, his fictional assistant. Such pairings or groupings create necessary teams in business, according to research by BYU professor Katie Liljenquist.

Why is grouping both types of workers good for business?

Those with high power are confident and action-oriented, but they tend to also be impulsive, the research found. Low-power people are more cautious and can balance out those with risky tendencies.

“There’s no question that companies need the confidence, the goal-directed vision of powerful folks in their organizations,” Liljenquist said. “But because they’re more inclined to leap before they look, they’re at risk to be blindsided by unforeseen obstacles. … The low-power counterparts are keyed into potential obstacles that could interfere with the pursuit of their goals.”

Each type is equally aware of how to reach goals, but Liljenquist said those with high power are somewhat oblivious to the constraints and threats, making them more vulnerable. Like predatory animals tracking food, high-power folks have a narrow focus. Low-power people, on the other hand, mirror behavior of prey species — they have broad peripheral views and are more alert to danger.

The researchers' power-to-action experiment had participants sit in a cold room with a fan blowing directly at them. Jennifer Whitson, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a project contributor, said the results were different for the individuals who were primed, or had recently recalled memories of having power.

“People who had been primed with high power were significantly more likely to simply reach over and turn off that fan,” Whitson said. “High-power people are also more likely to take a hit in blackjack than low-power people. There are a whole (lot) of studies that show that the powerful are just much more active.”

The world is divided into high- and low-power people in all aspects. Adam Galinsky, professor at Columbia University and Liljenquist’s doctoral dissertation adviser, said this is a successful form of organization because humans are adept at switching between roles. For example, the bigwig of a business corporation has power until he is bossed around by his parents during the holidays, or a teenager is at the bottom of every totem pole until she baby-sits for her neighbors’ youngsters.

“Every human culture, every human society, every human group is eventually organized hierarchically where some people have more power and respect than other people,” he said. “Same thing in animal species. … Every relationship we have is going to be characterized by a power dynamic.”

Each position has its pros and cons — low-power folks are cautious but aware of threats, while those with high power are optimistic but rash — and each needs the other in order to maximize their goals. Low-power people need encouragement in moving forward and high-power people need help in identifying obstacles.

If each Tony Stark teams with a Pepper Potts, companies may be more likely to combine planned action with anticipation of crises as they listen to and advise each other.

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