Machiavelli said that we are driven by two main impulses, love and fear.

Researchers have now shown how this dynamic translates in the workplace, by outlining two fundamental leadership styles.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Professor Jon Maner from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in the US, maps out how some leaders base their style of management on ‘prestige’ while others rely on ‘dominance’.

Leading in a primal way

Dominance, Maner and his co-author say in their original paper, can be traced back through evolutionary history and is also found in primates, including chimpanzees. High-ranking chimps – who are almost always male – command respect and deference, and enforce their dominance through intimidation.

Humans use similar tactics when it comes to exerting influence, such as coercion, aggression, punishment and reward.

Typically, there are steep hierarchies and power is largely held by the most dominant people.

Dominance-driven leadership methods lend themselves to narcissistic individuals, the researchers say.

Rallying your team

Prestige strategies, however, are unique to humans and only emerged as early humans started forming small communities. Here, team members defer freely to their leader because they respect and admire his or her knowledge and skills, and use them as a role model.

Hierarchies tend to be flat; leaders feel the need to affiliate with others, and do not necessarily seek a high profile for themselves.

How to spot a dominant or a prestige leader

Dominant business leaders are likely to monitor closely team members they perceive as a threat, and eventually ostracize them if they become too ‘dangerous’. They do this by assigning them tasks that do not match their skillsets, to prevent them from excelling. They are also more likely to discourage their team from forming close bonds.

Conversely, prestige-driven leaders will embrace high-flying employees and recruit them as allies rather than turn them into enemies. They will give their team the freedom to excel in roles that match their talents and encourage team bonding.

Dominant leaders know that ‘knowledge is power’ and therefore withhold information to maintain their status, while prestige leaders believe in information sharing.

Image: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Horses for courses

While some leaders may fall squarely into either the dominance or prestige category, the researchers are clear that selecting which strategy to use often depends on the situation.

Dominance, it appears, works best when teams need to get aligned and move into the same direction quickly. For instance, a crisis may require a quick, concerted response without much debate. Another scenario is when a leader needs different departments that do not always work in harmony to pull together to achieve a common goal.

In these cases strong, fast decision-making is required without worrying too much about the emotional impact on individuals who may not appreciate being ‘bossed’ around.

In situations where the team needs to be empowered, prestige strategies work much better. When a creative team needs to brainstorm a new campaign, they are best given space and encouraged to discuss and develop ideas together. Here, the leader should provide a framework and guidance while acting as an ordinary group member.

Based on their studies, the researchers conclude that experienced leaders know which style they lean towards naturally, and can switch between the two to suit the situation.