Thease are the five ways to mitigate the risks of power.
Being right is addictive
When there is a lot at stake, discussions around the executive level table can become heated. Executives are passionate, well informed, and keen to persuade others to their point of view. Take care because being ‘right’ can be addictive (Glazier, 2014), and winning has costs too.
When we are wedded to our point of view and feel powerfully right, we lack the perspective to connect to others and to realise they see and experience the world differently. While we are ‘winning’, we don’t realise that others are ‘loosing’, and we can overlook the impact this has on our colleagues and our working relationships with them.
Most of us were educated in a school system that rewarded us when we came up with the correct answer, and this became a learned behaviour. Now, in the workplace, when you think you are right, the brain responds with a hit of dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward system. You feel good when you are right. When you add a dose of adrenaline—the ‘fight hormone’ that leaves you feeling dominant and invincible—you have a powerful cocktail, so why wouldn’t you want to keep winning?
The ‘power amplification effect’
Adam D Galinskiy of Columbia University coined the term ‘power amplification effect’ to describe what happens in communication when there is a power differential between the parties in a communication. The psychology of the powerful restricts the psychology of the powerless. Coming from an executive, everything about our communication is amplified: our tone, our support and our criticism. With this amplification effect, our addiction to being right will be even more damaging.
When one executive repeatedly displays the need to win, relationships can be damaged, diverse voices are likely to be silenced, and the quality of the team debate suffers. This leads to suboptimal team decision-making. While a ‘win at all cost’ mentality can have significant implications on dynamics within a leadership team, the impact is even more stark when this executive communicates down the organisational hierarchy.
Power can impact people focus
The cognitive impacts of power include an increase in goal focus, which comes at the expense of a focus on people.# Greater power also impacts the brain’s ability to take the perspective of others. A third impact of power on the brain is reduced sensitivity to risks; in other words, we are more confident of success and less likely to tune into what could go wrong.
Being more focused on and confident about achieving goals is an advantage for a leader, until dangerous levels of overconfidence are reached and the leader is not willing or able to hear dissenting voices and alternative views.
How can senior leaders better manage their powerful status?
Senior leaders can become isolated by their position and power. They are not as sensitive to their own impact on others in the way they were in more junior roles, and they no longer receive the same level of feedback now that they have more power.
As a senior leader, it’s up to you to consciously manage the impact of the power that comes from your position. Here are five ways you can do that:
- Tell less and ask more: My latest book Leaders Who Ask: Building Fearless Cultures by telling less and asking more provides practical strategies for leaders to embrace coaching strategies and questioning techniques.
- Create frameworks for sharing: Create an opportunity for everyone to speak, especially in situations where one person (and this may be you) is likely to dominate.
- Reflect on your responsibility: Remind yourself that you are a powerful person and that this comes with great responsibly. This will influence you in a positive way.
- No interruption rule: Overtly put this protocol in place and then ensure that you role model allowing others to speak without interruption. The design company IDEO adds to this a ‘no criticism’ rule where all ideas are good ideas during an ideation activity.
- Leader speaks last: Make a conscious decision to canvass the opinions of others first, and then offer your opinion.
The neurochemical mix in the brain changes in response to being powerful and right. Wise leaders are aware of this and consciously take steps to ensure they mitigate the risks of being powerful.
Glaser, J. E. (2014). Conversational Intelligence. New York: bibliomotion.
# Heidi Grant, Chief Science Officer at the Neuroleadership Institute, research scientist and Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School, outlined the effects of power on the brain at the 2018 Neuroleadership Summit in New York, 4 October 2018
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