January 27, 2015
The role and impact of power in an organization is complex. It’s highly interwoven with the attitudes and personality of people who have achieved power and status within their organizations, and how they express it. Recent studies show that some bosses use the power of their positions in ways that damage their teams and the organization. They may be driven by socially conditioned, conventional attitudes about power and ego; or by more outright psychopathology.
On the more benign end of the spectrum are the findings from a study lead by researchers at Columbia University’s Business School. It found that the more power-lusting, power-fixated leader tends to listen to his or her own views, but neglects to take into account the perspectives of subordinates. And that has consequences for business strategy and decisions. Published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the research found that when leaders fail to take into account or utilize the perspectives of their people, they are more likely to “bungle the issue and conversation.” That, in turn, results in less effective solutions to complex business problems that the team is facing. In short, less wise decision-making.
According to the study’s lead author, Adam Galinsky, leaders who are able to see the world from others’ points of view produce better outcomes. “Effective leadership is like a successful car ride. To go places, you need gas and acceleration — power is a psychological accelerator. But you also need a good steering wheel so you don’t crash as you speed down the highway — perspective-taking is that psychological steering wheel. When you anchor too heavily onto your own perspective, and don’t take into account the viewpoints of others you are bound to crash.”
Galinsky’s findings are especially visible among leaders who become highly ego-invested in their power and position. Inevitably, their employees become stressed and resentful, which undermines effective collaboration and teamwork. Most people are familiar with the damage from abusive, arrogant and narcissistic bosses, and studies increasingly document their negative impact on work teams.
Even worse, further along the spectrum of how power and personality affect behavior, other studies show that high levels of power can trigger tendencies towards latent pathological attitudes and behavior. The latter was demonstrated by the findings of a recent University of California at Berkeley study that power can accentuate or stimulate psychopathology within some leaders. While too little power can damage feelings of self-worth, the study found that “an inflated sense of power is…associated with bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, which can be both personally and socially corrosive.” The study was published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy:Theory, Research and Practice. According to senior author Sheri Johnson, the research found that “people at risk for mania tended to report high levels of pride and an emphasis on the pursuit of power despite interpersonal costs.”
Also at the extreme end of the spectrum are those who have clear psychopathic tendencies, but whose manipulative talents and intelligence enable them to mask their pathology – at least for a while. That is, they may be able to fake their behavior, as a recent study discovered.
But even those who are ego-invested in power, but to less pathological degrees, are not as effective in their leadership roles. The Columbia study I cited above concluded that power tends to diminish perspective-taking. “It leads people to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspectives.” Moreover, it found that the leader who does take into account other’s perspectives also needs the capacity to act upon those broader, or different perspectives.
But in my view, being able to do so requires being able to let go of one’s ego, and act in ways that may feel foreign or different, as though one has lost power and dominance. Some are unable to step outside of themselves in this way. The extent to which the power of a leader’s position is associated with psychopathology remains insufficiently acknowledged or dealt with in organizations. But in an era that long-term success requires openness, flexibility, transparency, collaboration and mutual support at all levels, the leader who is too intoxicated by power and ego will continue to create harm while being less effective in his or her role.
A slightly different version of this article was also published in The Huffington Post.