"We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom."
-Stephen Vincent Benet, Litany for Dictatorships, 1935
"We" thought wrong much of the time, it seems. Research from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management led by Professor Adam Galinsky has confirmed several hypotheses about people with power and how they see the world. The common theme is that those with power tend to out of touch with their subordinates' experiences, whether by failing to understand them or, in the worst cases, simply dismissing them. Indeed, power inhibits the ability to "understand how others see, think, and feel," according to the research summary.
Two of the team's more striking findings:
- The more power one gains, the more likely the power-holder is to assume others share their points of view.
- Power can inhibit empathy; one experiment showed that people with power inaccurately judged people's emotional facial expressions more often than those without power.
Galinsky and his team add that it's possible that this obliviousness to others' perspectives isn't a matter of people laying on "power trips" when they attain power; rather, awareness of other perspectives might be "a psychological state that is an emergent property of increased power." If that's the case, then it becomes even more important to make conscious attempts to manage power's impact on a leader's perspective.
The implications of this research go beyond the lab and possibly right into your own team. Another study released this month by talent-management consultancy Development Dimensions International surveyed individual contributors-i.e. workers in non-leadership roles. Half of the employees polled reported feeling stagnant (read: unfulfilled) in their jobs. Twenty percent of these stagnant contributors cited their boss as the one thing they would change about their workplace. What's more, when asked what types of skills they would have their bosses get training in, the answers come almost full circle to the Kellogg research about decreased perspective with increased power. The top two skills stagnant employees would recommend for their bosses were communication (cited by 44 percent of respondents) and listening (42 percent).
So, how does your power affect your own leadership? Before you answer, contemplate the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: "The ruling power within, when it is in its natural state, is so related to outer circumstances that it easily changes to accord with what can be done and what is given it to do."