C-Suite Agenda

Four warning signs you are drunk on power

You don’t have to look too far to see examples of the misuse of power, with examples littered throughout history and across politics, business, and community sectors. 

Professor Dacher Keltner from Berkley University found that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively. For example, have affairs, drive aggressively, be rude or disrespectful when communicating, and lie.  

In his book, The Power Paradox, he explains how power is something a person initially acquires by improving other people’s lives. In this way, power is granted or bestowed by others. However, his research found that this same experience of power often destroys the skills that gave the person the power in the first place. The result is they then lose that acquired power.

This scenario plays out in workplaces too.

Power and decision making

Organisational hierarchies are the very definition of power structures. The further up the totem pole, the more power you have.  

The danger for organisations is how this flows into decision making. Research shows that humans are often overconfident in their beliefs about their abilities. It’s one of the many brain-based biases that exist. The problem is the issue gets worse as you acquire more power.

A 2010 study by the University of Southern California and London Business School (Power and overconfident decision making) found a correlation between over-confidence and how much power a person has.   

The more power a person feels, the more confident they are of the accuracy of their thoughts and beliefs. Consequently, people in powerful positions are often more confident that their opinions are correct.

Being overly confident may lead you not to heed advice or look for alternative opinions. Neither of which is helpful when you need to solve complex problems and make difficult decisions.

Heed the warning signs

It’s crucial, therefore, to be alert to the warning signs that power is negatively impacting how you are thinking, deciding and behaving.

Here are four warning signs to consider:

  1. You think your rights and needs outweigh those of others, and so their decision making is all about what works best for you
  2. You are not listening to the ideas and opinions of others, believing that your knowledge and insights hold more weight and value than others
  3. You ignore feedback from people seeing it as unhelpful and irrelevant, rather than reflecting on what is driving the input and what you could (or should) adjust to elevate your effectiveness
  4. You believe you are more intelligent than others and have little more to learn, so you stop seeking out new ideas and diversity of thought

Balance the power

When you think you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room or bring in people who will challenge how you think.  

In political and diplomatic circles, the concept of a ‘balance of power’ is used. It proposes that outcomes are enhanced when no single nation is so powerful it can dominate world affairs.

This concept is based on the understanding that power in the hands of the few isn’t healthy. It equally applies in the working environment. If you want a healthy, thriving work environment, it’s essential to balance power. In such a culture, power is shared and distributed, and no one leader dominates over others.

So what are you doing to balance the power in your organisation and team?

Paraphrasing the words of Abraham Lincoln, remember that ‘Nearly all people can stand adversity, but if you want to test a person’s character, give them power’.


Written by Michelle Gibbings.
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Michelle Gibbings
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the author of three books, including her latest 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'.


Michelle Gibbings is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.