Power Poisoning

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Why do really smart people do really stupid things?  It’s not just ex-Governor Spitzer, it’s also Governor Arnold and his attempt to hide an affair and a child.  It’s also those that think they can lie about the numbers (Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay of Enron) and no one will find out.  Ever.

There’s some interesting research on this that’s shed some light on what’s going on, and guess what . .  .  It’s not just them, it’s all of us, or at least most of us that are guilty.  When given even a little bit of power, we tend to abuse our authority position.  So, those of us who are managers and parents, pay attention.  This is relevant.

Bob Sutton, in his book: Good Boss, Bad Boss, references research done by Dacher Keltner and colleagues (Power, Approach and Inhibition).   In this reliable experiment (repeated over 200 times), known as the “cookie experiment,” groups of university graduate students were put into teams of three, with two of them responsible for creating a social policy paper dealing with campus issues (bicycle safety, recycling, etc.).  One of them was randomly assigned to evaluate the output of the other two and determine how much to pay the two “workers.”  They’re given about an hour.  After 30 minutes of work, the experimenter arrived with a plate of five cookies.   This allowed each participant to take one cookie, and at least one participant to comfortably take a second cookie.  Manners being what they are, no one was expected to take the last, fifth cookie, and usually, no one did.  But what about that fourth cookie? The one that could be taken without awkwardness or negotiation, or as the researchers called it, “the cookie in play?”

It turned out that even a little taste of power turned people into pigs: Not only did the “manager” in the group tend to take the fourth cookie: 80% of the time, this student also displayed more disinhibited eating behavior as characterized by eating with his/her mouth open and scattering  more crumbs, more widely: 80% of the time.  Now, for us non-statisticians, an 80% correlation in ANY experiment, is a dream come true for research paper writers.   From the cookie case, we learn that there is a very, very high likelihood that when 4 out of 5 of us (regardless of gender or personality) wield power, we will become more focused on our own needs, and less focused on others’ needs, and act as if the rules don’t apply to us.  This is the Power Poisoning that Sutton is referring to.

But, how do we fight mother nature and prevent ourselves from being poisoned by our power?  Clearly it would help to watch yourself (your smile, tone of voice, the way you look or don’t look at people, the way you greet them, use their name, remember their important dates, thank and appreciate them for efforts, not just outcomes).  But that’s easier said than done.  A more effective , and valid method, also proven by research, is to check-in with your employees (and your kids).  Findings by Susan Fiske (“Controlling Other People: The Impact of Power on Stereotyping)  showed that “attention is directed up the hierarchy. Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa….(because) people pay attention to those who control their outcomes in an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them.”  So in other words, they are watching you very carefully.  They watch you when you get up from your desk, they watch to see where you’re going, they watch your face when a senior manager leaves your office and make guesses about what your expression means.  They watch who you smile more with – and make guesses about that too.  They talk about your behavior when you’re not around.  Basically, you are on their screen. A lot.  Even more than you are on your screen.  Research has shown that employees can more accurately recall their manager’s behavior during a work day than the manager could recall of her own behavior.

So here’s the suggestion:  Because we are likely to be blind to our own power poisoning, find a safe way to get your employees (or children) to tell you what you are doing that’s hindering your effectiveness as a manager (or parent).  OK, at this point, some of you are thinking: “Yeh sure, this is like asking my spouse to tell me if my butt looks too big in these pants.  Can I count on an honest answer?”  Yes you can, if you make it safe for them to answer. To soften the ground, try a preemptive strike on yourself (“I know I can be too impulsive and wordy at times.  I don’t want to hog the airspace, but frankly sometimes I’m not aware of doing it until too late.  At our next meeting, could you sit next to me and tap your finger when you think I’m over-talking my point, and not letting others comment?  It would be a huge help for me”). 

Don’t over do this, or you will risk creating an “it’s about me” climate around you.  Possibly a theme for the next episode of The Office.  But do try it.  Every one of my clients, and my manager friends (and parent friends) who have done this, ALWAYS say they wish they had done it earlier.

Get better.  Good luck.


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