What Does Having Power in Your Organization Do to You?

Screen shot 2013-04-11 at 10.10.11 AMCompanies are evolving and adapting to ongoing, often unpredictable business challenges today. in the context of teamwork and collaboration needs, leaders and the management cultures they build are rethinking the meaning and impact of power. Several new research studies have examined the impact of power and authority upon the behavior and emotional attitudes of people in their career and leadership roles. Much of this research yields useful findings for companies. But some contains significant limitations — and distortions.

Among the latter are many academic studies, based on controlled experiments in which college students are the participants. They construct artificial, experimental conditions, and then draw broad conclusions from the findings. Most seriously, they often neglect to study actual people in business environments. Moreover, some of the studies use definitions of “power” that don’t fit the realities of today’s organizations. Those flaws affect their conclusions.

For example, recent research found that “powerful” people are more likely to wait for future rewards rather than go far rewards in the present, because powerful people are more able to anticipate their “future.” Researchers from the University of Southern California conducted a series of four experiments in which participants were given “high-power” and “low-power” roles. The study reports that:

Afterwards, the participants were asked to make a series of choices between receiving $120 now or increasing amounts of money in one year. On average, low-power team workers were only willing to take the future reward if it was at least $88 more than the immediate one. High-power team managers, on the other hand, were willing to wait for future rewards that were only $52 more than the immediate one.

Researchers concluded that power holders are willing to wait for larger rewards because they feel more connected with their future selves; that they experience less uncertainty about their futures along with an increased tendency to see the big picture.

The problem with this conclusion is that it doesn’t match reality very well. Many people in power positions as defined by the study — positions of authority and higher rank — fail to consider or anticipate long-term consequences when making decisions affecting “rewards” in their career roles or personal lives. For example, celebrities and sports stars who squander their money or talent. Or business and financial leaders who led the country into near-economic collapse in recent years.

I think the researchers confused “power,” as they defined it, with something else: the capacity for perspective and larger vision of the “rewards” one aims for, in work or life in general. That builds confidence for distinguishing between what to go after short-term vs. what to postpone for a larger “payoff” down the road. It strengthens your capacity to act accordingly. And that’s a personal capacity, not a function of having power, per se.

That is, the research confuses power in a role or position with the mental and emotional capacity for a vision-based strategy that achieves long-term, long-range goals; a picture of what you’re aiming for, striving to “evolve” towards. It might concern career and business objectives as well as personal life goals. In both situations, such a vision “pulls” you towards it. That enables you to forgo more immediate, short-term rewards or success in the service of your long-range aims.

Such a mentality is a mixture of emotional attitudes, values and actions. It’s different from having power over others in a role-related situation, especially in the old-style, increasingly dysfunctional command-and-control organization. In contrast is the vision-oriented perspective that embodies “power-with” rather than “power-over,” necessary for collaboration and teamwork. The latter perspective is increasingly visible among business leaders and others creating business models that combine long-term financial success with contributing to the social good, as entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group has advocated. And others, such as CSR writer John Friedman, who has emphasized the links between engaging multiple stakeholders and creating sustainable business practices.

Another study reporting dubious results found that people in positions of power and authority — again, as defined by the researchers in controlled experiments — are quicker to recover from rejection, and will seek out “social bonding” opportunities when they are rebuffed. Why the research is dubious becomes clear when you examine it.

The study focused on how being in a position of power influences your responses to subtle acts of rejection. In a series of experiments, researchers at UC Berkeley assigned participants to either “high- or low-level positions” in a workplace. Then, they were told they hadn’t been invited to an office event. Low-level employees reported feeling stung by this rejection. But the high-power ones were relatively unfazed, and more likely to seek out social bonding activities, such as a hiking club, to improve relations with their coworkers.

Next, participants were told they would be working with someone in either a supervisory or a subordinate role. They received feedback from that person that was intended to be a snub or mild rejection. Those assigned to supervisory roles acted with indifference to perceived snubs from their “underlings” while subordinates took offense to barbs from their “bosses.”

One glaring problem with this study: Apparently, none of the participants were employees of actual organizations. Most were college students. And those who weren’t had responded to a solicitation via an online questionnaire.

In fact, I suspect most anyone who actually works for an organization could offer some alternative, real-life explanations. Aside from the possibility that some people just wouldn’t be bent out of shape by a rejection, I think most people would wonder if a high-power person who appeared unfazed might be an arrogant narcissist who dismissed or ignored the rejection. Or, that the person might silently stew while plotting retaliation. Examples of both are legion in real organizations.

Finally, a study found that power enhances well-being. This research indicated that power leads people to feel more authentic, more their “real self,” which, in turn, enhances well-being. I think this reflects a somewhat different view of “power.” That is, it likely taps into an experience of “power” different from the old-style hierarchical, role-related command-and-control; and more of a sense of inner strength and confidence about oneself based on heightened self-awareness. The latter are sources of well-being and effectiveness in both careers and personal life.

But here, too, one should be cautious. One might feel very authentic and experience well-being with his or her power, and yet be a destructive narcissist who leads his or her company into ruin. Or a dictator. Self-awareness can be disconnected from morals or positive values, or deformed by pathology. As always, the psychological makeup of the person is key.

This was originally published in The Huffington Post.