How to protect yourself from the seduction of power (#72)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Think about a time when you were marginalized by a superior…or worse, when you did the marginalizing. You’re a good person. What can you do to change?

Quick: think of someone whose power seems to have gone to their head.  Most of us form an image right away.  We can easily pick out those who seem to think their superior status grants them privileges over the rest of us, specifically those under their supervision. 

How did they get that way?  Were they raised to be self-serving and arrogant?  Turns out, power itself has the capacity to turn an otherwise kind and caring individual into that arrogant person who disregards the feelings of others.  This means it can happen  to you and me – unless we know the danger, warning signs, and how to avoid it.

When I thought about writing this post, the first image that came to my mind was an incident about two decades ago. I was scheduled to meet with a nonprofit director and arrived at her office about two minutes early. As I was waiting, a young woman walked in. She looked to be in her early 20s, while the director was probably in her mid-40s.

“Cassondra, is this the paper I asked you to pull for me?” the director asked. Her tone was icy cold. 

“Yes ma’am,” responded Cassondra with a quiver in her voice.  “I thought this is what you asked for.” I could see Cassondra’s shoulders shaking as she waited for the onslaught. And there it came.

“You thought! You thought! You thought!!! I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to do what I say. I ask you to pull the papers and you bring me this crap!”

closeup of an old lone male lion
Credit: Stock Footage Club

“Yes ma’am!” Cassondra responded as she scurried off to get the right papers.

The director turned toward me with a pleasant smile. “Now tell me how can I help you today.” I thought I had stumbled into an Avengers movie where a raging Hulk had changed into a mild mannered Bruce Banner.1 At a time when my work was focused on fostering positive organizational cultures, I could not have been more astonished.

Apparently the director thought there was nothing unusual or inappropriate in what just happened. She obviously had no awareness of her bullying behavior. She seemed to believe the authority of her position gave her the right to treat the young woman as she had, even in front of a stranger.

3 reasons people with power are more likely to make bad decisions2

For several months, I had been planning to write about how power affects people’s judgment when a colleague sent me an article in Fast Company that summarized most of everything I would like you to know about the seduction of power. An abridged version of the article is reproduced below, under the Creative Commons license where it originally appeared in The Conversation.

After the article, I will talk about Steve Jobs, the much admired founder of Apple, who was known for his volatility and his charisma. As you will see, he was definitely seduced by power, but he was able to get away with it – at least initially.  His career contains a paradox for us when learning about power and how to avoid being corrupted or seduced by it.

3 reasons people with power are more likely to make bad decisions3

Daniel de Zilva

To put it simply, feeling powerful tends to inhibit a person’s ability to make good decisions.

Research shows having a formal position of authority with influence over people, resources and rewards is associated with cognitive and behavioural costs. People who feel powerful (either in the moment or consistently) make significantly lower estimates of the likelihood of negative outcomes. They are more likely to take risks both to obtain gains and avoid losses.

Feeling powerful makes us more prone to three behavioural patterns that increase the likelihood of making poor decisions: overvaluing our own perspective; dismissing the expertise of others; and failing to recognise limitations. Those who feel powerful are more likely to overrate their own perspective and dismiss the advice of experts.

Not seeing other perspectives 

Taking the perspective of others is important in any leadership role. Those who feel more powerful tend, however, to overvalue their own perspective and discount the perspectives of others.

This has been demonstrated in behavioural experiments by social psychologist Adam Galinsky and colleagues.The researchers evoked feelings of greater or lesser power in participants by asking them either to recall a time they had power over someone else, or a time someone else had power over them. Others, who were asked to do neither, formed the control group.

Participants were then asked to perform three different tests measuring their ability to see the perspective of other people. One test, for example, required them to identify emotions expressed by others. Those encouraged to remember feeling powerful were, on average, 6% less accurate than the control group. They were also less likely to detect expressions of displeasure in emails compared to the group made to feel less powerful.

Dismissing expert advice

Feeling powerful makes us more prone to dismiss expert advice. This effect has been measured by organisational behavioural researcher Leigh Tost and colleagues.

In their experiments they used the same method as Galinsky and colleagues to make participants feel more or less powerful. They then asked participants to estimate of the weight of three people or guess the amount of money in three jars of coins. Those who feel powerful are more likely to overrate their own perspective and dismiss the advice of experts.

After the first round of estimates, participants were given access to advice from people who had done the tasks before. They were told if these advisers were “experts” (with a strong performance record) or novices (with estimates that were just average).

Those encouraged to feel less powerful were more inclined to listen to the advice of the experts. Those who felt more powerful were more likely to dismiss the expert and novice advice equally.

Participants also completed a survey about their feelings during the task. The results from this element of the study show those who felt more powerful had a greater sense of being in competition with others. The authors conclude that dismissing advice from experts is connected to a desire to “preserve their social dominance”.

two lions walking together in the snow
Credit: Stock Footage Club

Not recognising constraints

The more powerful we feel, the more likely we will pursue goals aggressively and fail to recognize constraints. This is because power means we are, in fact, less constrained. The powerful have more resources to do what they like, and to tell others what to do.

Organisational researcher Jennifer Whitson and colleagues measured this tendency in experiments in which participants were given nine facts that could hinder achieving a goal – such as “not much money to invest” – and nine facts that could help, such as “there is high demand”.

Those that felt powerful (again established through the method used by Galinsky and colleagues) were significantly less able to recall the constraints. The authors conclude “the powerful are more likely to act on their goals because the constraints that normally inhibit action are less psychologically present for them”.

Refusing to acknowledge constraints can sometimes be a useful thing. Apple founder Steve Jobs, for example, was notorious for ignoring his engineers’ complaints that they couldn’t do what he asked for. There’s a story of him tossing an iPod into a fish tank to demonstrate there was wasted space enabling air pockets. 

But such stubbornness is more likely to lead to bad outcomes, such the fate of Elizabeth Holmes, who modelled herself on Jobs and refused to accept her idea of compact medical blood-testing device couldn’t be made to work. Now she’s on trial for fraud.

These downsides to power are worth remembering at a time when listening to different points of view and heeding expert advice has never been more important. Our experience from the pandemic is that power is best distributed. We need leaders who understand that power corrupts, and who are humble enough to listen.

The paradox of Steve Jobs

I am a longtime admirer of Steve Jobs. My husband and I owned the original Macintosh when it first came out.  We welcomed the ease with which the Mac operated in contrast to the opacity of the Windows operating system.

woman with hammer running

We reveled in the 1984 Superbowl ad when the young woman came running past an army of minions and smashed a screen image of Big Brother.4

The sheer audacity, creativity, and antiauthoritarianism (or so we thought) of Steve Jobs caught our imagination.

And then I learned that Jobs was antiauthoritarian only with regard to the world and his opposition to Big Brother. Within his own shop at Apple, he was well known for temper outbursts, firing people on the spot, and engaging in what is now known as authoritarian, bullying behavior.5 

Somewhat to my surprise, knowing this only slightly dampened my enthusiasm even now, several years after his death from pancreatic cancer.  I’m not alone. His 2005 commencement address to Stanford graduates is the most watched in history, with more than 40 million views on YouTube as of June 2021.6

What is it about the American psyche that responds to charisma and a daredevil demeanor, while tolerating abusive behavior?  People competed to sit at Jobs’ feet or to work on special projects with him. Well-known as a visionary as well as a perfectionist, his temper outbursts would reduce employees to tears, yet they still vied for the honor of working with him.

Let’s review again the three characteristics of powerful people:

  1. Not seeing others’ perspectives
  2. Dismissing expert advice
  3. Not recognizing constraints

Jobs certainly displayed all three.  There is a famous story that when he was first given a prototype of the Macintosh by his engineers, he heard an annoying whirring sound. “What’s that?” he asked. They explained it was the fan noise that computers make. “I don’t like that sound.” They advised it was an inherent part of the machinery. “I don’t care. Get rid of it.” And he gave him them a deadline to bring it back.  Knowing his famous temper, they scurried off.  And within the dictated time frame, they brought it back with the sound gone.

Over the years, I have seen several instances when organizations have known bullies in their executive ranks. All were geniuses in their respective fields.  All left bodies in their wake. 

Jobs was the only one who retained his executive position for as long as he did, but even he was eventually fired by the board. He left and tried two businesses which failed. This was his wake up call. When he returned – correction: when they induced him to come back because Apple was failing without him – he had toned down considerably and was more approachable and less erratic.  He returned with his vision, charisma, and genius intact.  More importantly, though, he had learned he needed help.  He still did not recognize constraints, but he had learned to listen to experts and seek to understand others’ points of view.7 

How can we avoid the seduction of power?

None of us wants to be kicked out of our jobs to help us learn how not to be seduced by the power we gain as leaders.  And if we work with a bullying leader, instead of feeling stuck and passive [blog #62, How to engage in the fight against autocracy: Tap our inner strength], what might we do instead?

First of all, examine yourself for signs that power has gone to your head. Are people who work with you afraid of you, and do you like it that way? Do people feel free to tell you when they disagree with you?  If they disagree, do you pay attention? Change starts with us. The world we want to create starts with us.

Next, think of the leaders in your life – current or past – that you believe exhibited the three characteristics of being seduced by power. Study their actions and look for any signs that they were aware of their impact on others. The woman I described at the beginning of this blog post had no idea how she appeared to me. I imagine she thought she was displaying powerful behavior, signaling to me that she was in charge of her organization. Since I made every effort to control my face while the young woman was visibly trembling in front of me, I don’t think the director had a clue about the impression she was giving me. If you are a leader, consider the possibility that people are not telling you vital information you need to improve.

Now consider what you might do if you have a bully for a leader or observe such a person in action [blog #44, Why people bully…and what you can do about it]. If the person does not get any feedback that there’s something wrong with their behavior, how are they supposed to know? The research summarized by de Zilva in The Conversation says they won’t.  So if you’re waiting for them to wake up and change their behavior, consider whether it is worth the risk to you to figure out a way to tell them.  Tall order, I know.

I was visiting that director for a one-time interview and never saw her again. I imagine that if I had had to work with her, I would not have been able to tolerate it and would eventually have said something to her. In fact, I did do this to a tenured bully at my university. The risk I felt was immense, yet the alternative of tolerating it was worse. For you, staying silent or even leaving the organization may seem the better alternative. That’s why I’m suggesting that you carefully think about it now. This way, when you find yourself in such a situation, you will have thought through your alternatives.

Last comment: Moving forward, what protections can you build into your life now to guard against becoming a powerful leader with such a huge blind spot? How can you establish an environment where people feel free to tell you if you are overstepping? I am fortunate to have people in my life who feel quite free to say what’s wrong with me and how I should fix it. My husband, daughter, nieces, students, close long-time friends, and contractors have all helped me grow. Along the way my feelings have gotten hurt repeatedly. It happens so frequently, I’m almost used to it. That’s a small price to pay for the gifts they have given me.  Now what about you?

I know some people who claim they have to trust people before they will listen to feedback from them. To me that’s a recipe for disaster.  Some of my best feedback came from students with whom I did not have a strong relationship. They just told me what they thought, and I could tell by how zinged I felt whether to believe them or not.  It was not a matter of trusting them. It was a matter of trusting my own reaction to what they have to say. The more painful the comment, the more I knew it meant I should pay attention.

It’s up to you to plan now to become the type of leader that you would like to be, work with, or work for.  It’s not an easy path, but I predict you will find it’s worth the effort. 

2 lions lying on a boulder
Credit: Nathan Guan on Unsplash

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Do you see signs of being seduced by power in anyone you work with? In yourself?
  2. How much bullying would you tolerate to work with a creative genius?

Learning Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Build effective relationships
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
    • Learn how to give, receive, and seek feedback
    • Distinguish intent from impact
  • Conscious use of self
    • Seek to understand others’ perspectives
    • Adopt a growth mindset
    • Recognize your power and use it responsibly
    • Build resilience through self-affirmation
  • Initiate change
    • Commit to personal change
    • Surface undiscussables
    • Learn from resistance
    • Cultivate radical patience through the time lag of change
    • Acknowledge small wins

#Dominant/NondominantDynamics    #PowerToThePeople #HowToListenEffectively

Leading Consciously

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[1] Mello, M. (2021). "10 ways Bruce Banner changed between Incredible Hulk & Avengers.",  Retrieved 10/19/2021.

[2] de Zilva, D. (2021). 3 reasons people with power are more likely to make bad decisionsThe Conversation.

[3] Ibid

[4] The Real Story Behind Apple's Famous '1984' Super Bowl Ad (Video by Brandon Lisy. Music by Andy Clausen) (Source: Bloomberg)

[5] Eisner, S. (2016). The "in-factor": Signature traits of innovation's leaders. Journal of Applied Business Research, 32(1), 185. 

[6] Page, T. (2021) Why Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement speech is the most watched in historyCNN Greatest Speeches

[7] Valentine, C. J. (2014). iLeadership: The leadership style of Steve Jobs. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.