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The Dark Side of Power (Part 2)
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The Dark Side of Power (Part 2)

The Dark Side of Power (Part 2)
9.2
So you’ve had a chance to think about the potential costs and risks with respect to power and what it does to our confidence, and therefore our willingness to listen to and take advice from others. But we’re not done with the costs and risks of power. What I’d like you to do now is think about, does power make us more self focused or more other or team focused? And the results of our research in this area, I think, really important for us as leaders in organizations who are leading people who are leading teams to really understand and appreciate. What we’re finding in our research is that power generally makes people more self-focused than it does other focused.
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One of the most recent studies that we’ve done in this area comes out of one of my colleagues, Van Kleef and some of his colleagues, that was published in 2015 where they were looking at what inspires people. When you ask people to write stories of inspirational moments, or inspirational examples in their life, they simply ask people to write that story. And for some people, they were primed to be, again, in that low power, powerless, position or the psychology of power to feel powerless. And for other people, they were primed to feel extremely powerful. To be in that powerful position. To feel powerful.
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And what’s amazing is the degree to which people will write about others or themselves depending on whether they are powerless or powerful. The powerless individuals, there was no difference in whether or not they wrote stories of inspiration about themselves or about others. So stories of themselves would be when they would be the protagonist or the first person, if you will, in the story that was inspirational. Or in the stories where it’s someone else, the other, it’s a story about someone else doing something that that person found to be extremely inspirational. But then look at the difference for high power people. People who are primed to feel powerful, or to be in that high power position. Almost double.
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Almost two times the number of stories written about myself versus writing stories about other people being inspirational. And so one of the implications of this research is that when we are primed to feel powerful, whether that be our position, or how other people treat us, or resources, information, expertise, that we have that others do not have, chances are, according to our work, those people are generally going to be more self-focused than other focused or team focused. That has fundamental implications for how you think about managing and leading your team, especially if you are that person in the high power position. Let me give you an example.
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Again, this is a study, my colleague Lee Toast here at the University of Michigan conducted a couple of years ago. That shows you just how much this power can actually hurt your team by being more self-focused as opposed to other-focused. So what she and her colleagues have found in this research is when the formal leader of the team and often times that’s going to be you. If it’s not you today it will be you in the future. When you are that powerful formal leader, that formal supervisor, and you feel powerful.
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What that results in, in terms of communication in the team, is that the leaders who feel powerful generally increase the amount at which they are talking in the team as opposed to other people in the team doing the talking in team meetings, discussions, debates, conversations. So leaders who, forget their position, all of these people are formal supervisors, formal managers.
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But when you feel powerful, more powerful than your team members, for example, you increase the amount of your talking relative to the talking of other team members. That results in less open communication in your team, broadly. Less safe environment for team members to speak up because you’re the one that’s always talking. Less opportunity for them to communicate ideas that maybe are different than the ones that you’re communicating. And then what we’re finding is that because of that less open communication in the team we’re finding that the teams actually perform worse. So for example, we’ve looked at teams where there’s no formal leader, and we’ve looked at teams where this is a formal leader.
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Look at this example where there is a formal leader in the team. The Y axis here, what we’re measuring is the percent of teams who identified the correct answer on a complex decision making task where the team had to make a decision and give an answer and there was a correct answer and there were wrong answers. And we’re looking at the percent of time where the team gave the correct answer. When you have that formal leader, and that leader feels powerful, powerful relative to team members.
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That power, because it results in less open communication, less open information sharing in the team, actually reduces the likelihood and significantly reduces the likelihood that your team will actually come up with the correct answer. Relative to if your formal leader does not feel this extreme level of power over the team members. In this case referred to as neutral power. Or if there is no formal power distinction or difference in the team at all. So this is really important for you, as a team leader or as a future team leader, to understand.
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That when you’re in that position, that formal authority of leadership in that team, if you perceive psychologically that you are much more powerful, much more of an expert, much more of a legitimate authority on the team task relative to your team members according to our data you are going to increase the amount at which you talk. Decrease the amount at which other people talk. Create a less safe environment for your team and ultimately as a result of that reduce or lower your team’s performance. So as that team leader, you have to be very careful, especially when you’re in that position of formal authority not to internalize psychologically that you are so much more powerful than other people.
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Otherwise, you’re actually going to undermine not only your team’s performance, but as a result your own performance.
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