The allure of power is as ancient as the origins of humanity. Climbing corporate ladders, or negotiating political or social hierarchies, the path to power often involves years of dedication, skill acquisition and strategic networking. This relentless pursuit is fuelled by tangible rewards like higher salaries, job security and a platform to influence. However, intangible psychological rewards – like self-esteem and a sense of control – are equally potent motivators.
But, once power is attained, an isolationist mentality can emerge. It seems there’s a tendency for powerful individuals to become less receptive to the advice or viewpoints of others. Research points to a concerning pattern where powerful people often disregard even expert opinions. In this extended discussion, we’ll delve into the multifaceted reasons behind this phenomenon and explore ways to address it.
When Power Changes the Brain
Once individuals attain some level of power, intriguing psychological transformations start to manifest. Ana Guinote of University College London has found in her research that powerful people were likelier to make indulgent choices, such as opting for chocolate over more nutritious foods like radishes. In another study, people were asked to draw an “E” on their foreheads. Those who felt powerful were three times more likely to draw it from their own perspective, making it appear backward to an observer. This straightforward act demonstrated an innate disregard for how others might interpret their actions.
Factors Behind the Decline in Listening
When the decline in active listening and empathy among the powerful is probed, several contributing factors are identified:
- Overestimation of Self-Worth: Power seems to inflate self-worth, often to unrealistic proportions. People in power positions are more likely to overestimate even their physical attributes, such as height, which transfers over to an overestimation of their intellectual capabilities and decision-making skills.
- Entitlement and Privilege: With power often comes a sense of entitlement to special treatment and deference from others. This naturally opposes the idea of taking advice, especially if it appears to challenge their views.
- Self-Preservation: The higher individuals rise in a hierarchy, the more they have to lose. Consequently, they may be motivated to make decisions that primarily serve to protect and consolidate their power.
Given these behavioural pitfalls, several methods could counteract the negative impact of power:
- Crew Resource Management: Techniques like the ones employed in the aviation industry encourage democratic discussions, helping to break down traditional hierarchies.
- Humility-Based Leadership Training: As research shows, humility correlates positively with effective leadership. Organisations are now looking for leaders who exhibit humility and inclusiveness.
- Institutional Safeguards: Internal and external checks can be put in place to counterbalance the decisions of powerful individuals. This may include peer reviews, advisory boards, or even whistleblower policies.
- Promoting Self-Awareness: Ultimately, individual leaders should practise self-awareness and critical self-examination. Tools like 360-degree feedback can offer leaders a more rounded view of their own performance.
While power can serve to accomplish both noble and selfish goals, it undeniably carries the risk of distorting one’s self-perception and diminishing one’s capacity to listen and empathise with others. It is crucial, therefore, for both organisations and individuals to be mindful of these risks. With carefully designed interventions and ongoing education, it is possible to cultivate a leadership style that wields power responsibly without falling into the trap of arrogance or self-isolation. The harmony between power and humility isn’t just an ideal; it’s a necessity in today’s interconnected and collaborative world.