Sunday, November 25, 2018

Does Power Corrupt?

Dacher Keltner in a 2016 article highlights how “while people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior. The 19th-century historian and politician Lord Acton got it right: Power does tend to corrupt,” (p.112).
When you think about ‘power’ it’s a strange attribute – very few people strive for ‘power’ on its own, though I accept there are the exceptions that do exactly that. I believe the majority of people don’t look for the power itself, they look for the ‘position’ whatever that might be – captain of a soccer team; leader in business; leader in their community; leader in government; or even an entrepreneur. As people strive for these positions they are rarely aware of the personal ‘power’ this brings, and believe they think more about the ability to shape the future (in a positive way) – it’s only when they are in these positions that the ease and temptation to use power to get things done, above other more positive traits, starts to raise its ugly head – and people start to change. 
Keltner highlights how “in an experiment, Paul Piff of UC Irvine and I found that whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles – Dodge Colts, Plymouth Satellites – always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians at a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMW’s and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time, nearly half the time they ignored the pedestrian and the law. Surveys of employees of 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montreal demonstrated that CEO’s with MBA’s are more likely than those without MBA’s to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline,” (p.113).
Its interesting research and each of us will have our own experiences, and hence opinions. For me, I totally agree with the research – I have found people in positions of power to behave more arrogantly and selfishly than those that have less. In fact there was an interesting research study done recently on homeless people begging on the streets of America – and it found that in many cases those that could afford to help didn’t, and passed the homeless person quite aggressively; and it was in fact those that had a little and maybe had once been homeless themselves that would stop and help.
Obviously this isn’t a one cap fits all scenario and I know there are many wealthy people who support their communities on a regular basis and don’t look for the recognition of their deeds; more often than not these are the wives, girlfriends and daughters of wealthy people who will support different local causes.
Keltner mentions that “the consequences can be far reaching. The abuse of power ultimately tarnishes the reputations of executives, undermining their opportunities for influence. It also creates stress and anxiety among their colleagues, diminishing rigor and creativity in the group and dragging down team members’ engagement and performance. In a recent poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, about half the respondents who reported being treated rudely at work said they deliberately decreased their effort or lowered the quality of their work in response,” (p.113).
This is an incredible statistic, yet it probably hasn’t made a dent in the poor behavior and the abuse of power. Why? Because these power players are also good at covering their own backs – it’s never their fault when things go wrong and they seem to be masters at blaming others. Yet when things go well, it’s because of them and their leadership – where they play down the involvement of others. What’s incredible is that the senior leadership and corporate boards of organizations around the world seem to be oblivious to this basic kind of corporate bullshit; and blindly accept these peoples explanations of events – possibly because they are ‘content’ with performance. This sadly raises another key issue for organizations which is too many corporate boards are not fit for purpose; and filled with self-driven egotistical males (in too many cases) who also love the ‘power’ that comes with the role and don’t want to challenge the status quo.
So the misuse of power will continue in organizations and suboptimal results will be signed off by boards; until there is a complete shake up in how we conduct business and ‘we’ reintroduce genuine corporate values once again – and hold people accountable.
So that’s the bad news – but it doesn’t have to be this way. So what can we do about it? Keltner suggests that “you can outsmart the power paradox by practicing the ethics of empathy, gratitude, and generosity. It will bring out the best work and collaborative spirit of those around you. And you, too, will benefit, with a burnished reputation, long-lasting leadership, and the dopamine-rich delights of advancing the interest of others,” (p.115).
It simply goes back to basic values and concepts like treating people as you’d like to be treated. You know what it feels like to be led by a ‘power’ driven leader, the impact it had on your motivation, performance etc – so knowing the impact it had on you, you must know the impact it will have on your employees if you adopt the same approach. There’s no excuse to use power other than you have been over-promoted and are out of you depth. In these situations be honest with yourself and seek advice and counselling outside of the work environment; get feedback from your employees and work to be the best leader you can be.
Conversely you know the kind of leader who motivated you to perform, to exceed expectations – the kind of leader that made going to work enjoyable – the kind of leader you wanted to follow and were loyal too.
It’s not rocket science and it’s time corporate boards and other key stakeholders demanded leadership excellence in their organizations – as they know if they do, that performance will get even better and the company will become stronger and more efficient. Leaders who misuse power should be counselled and given support to change their style; and if they can’t change over a reasonable period of time then they need to be removed from the organization. This is the only way to change the negative impact of power in organizations.
As Jack Welch said “before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
Keltner, D. (2016). Managing Yourself: Don’t Let Power Corrupt You. Harvard Business Review, October, p.112-115.