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With Power Comes Responsibility

With Power Comes Responsibility
We’ve talked a lot about power. We’ve defined power. We’ve talked about the benefits, the potential risks and costs of power. Most recently we talked about how you build your power. Very specific strategies and tactics that you can use to build your structural power, your personal power and even that cognitive, that feeling of being powerful as opposed to powerless.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the idea that with power comes great responsibility. And we have many examples in our research where we found the extent that people will go when they’re granted authority. When they’re granted power over others. Macksen will share with you some very provocative, very powerful examples later in this course of some experiments that Stanley Milgrim has done around power that I think will reinforce this idea. But there is a great quote, with great power comes great responsibility. And the Zimbardo experiments back in the 1970s conducted at Stanford are a great reminder of just how much responsibility comes with power. And remember power can come from anywhere.
It doesn’t come just from the formal position that you have. You’re the expert, you’re the authority, you have information, you have charisma that other people are attracted to. You don’t have to be in positions of authority, formal positions, to enact that charisma, to enact your expertise, or the information power that you have.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is I think is a wonderful example to study, to understand just how much responsibility comes with great power. In this study, Zimbardo and his colleagues put participants in this study into different positions. They were in a prison. A makeshift experimental prison, not an actual prison, but on the Stanford campus. And some of the participants were assigned to be the prison guards, and some participants were assigned to be the prisoners. And then they were essentially asked to act out, and live as if they were in a prison. And what overtime would actually happen, was that the guards took advantage of their power.
And ultimately use that power to take advantage of and even in some cases, torture their fellow participants. Even though the power was fictional and made up is part of the experiment. And a scary aspect of the study was that the participants who felt powerless, who were the prisoners, allowed it to happen as well. And it just goes to show you just how much responsibility comes with power. Because even in a situation, an experiment on the Stanford campus where really there’s no cost, no formal cost to stepping up and saying that something is wrong here, we shouldn’t be doing this. But when granted power, people will take advantage of it.
And when put or assigned into a position of being powerless, people can embrace that mindset as well and will allow people to wield authority over them even when that authority is fictional or made up. And that’s a study that’s always stood out to me as a really good reminder of just how much responsibility comes with the power that we’ve talked about this week. And the influence that power affords us to have in many situations in our organizations, in our teams, even at home with our families as well. That study motivated a colleague of mine, Katy DeCelles, myself and some of our other colleagues.
We did a study a couple years ago where we got really interested in what power would do to people’s behavior, whether they were self-interested or other oriented. And whether they would keep value for themselves or whether they would give value to others. And the big question that we were asking was does power corrupt or does power enable? And we found the answer is both. Power can corrupt, like we saw int he Stanford experiment back in the 1970s. But power can enable as well. And what we found it to depend on, we had a control condition where we didn’t influence, or prime people with power in any way.
But then we had a condition where people were primed to feel and think as if they were powerful, as opposed to powerless. So that’s our high power condition here. And what you see on the Y axis is a higher number represents that the individual in the experiment, when given the opportunity to take or give. Take value for themselves personally or give value to the team. The higher the score here, the more they took for themselves. The lower the score the less they took for themselves and the more they gave to the team. And what you see here is people in the high power condition, some of them took more value for themselves and kept that value.
Other people in that same condition who also felt powerful, they gave more value to the team. And what we found is it depended on a personality, a trait if you will, that we identified and called Moral Identity. And we define moral identity as the extent to which a person holds morality as part of his or her self concept or identity. So some of us have morality as a core part of how we define ourselves. Other people, it doesn’t mean morality is unimportant, but it’s just not how we define ourselves. Morality is not one of those three or four core dimensions upon which we would define who we are as a person.
What we’ve found is that for people that have moral identity as one of these core pillars of self definition, and defining who I am as a person. Those individuals when given power, used that power to create value for the team or the organization or their people. But for people who did not have morality as a core defining feature of themselves, they actually used that power to take more value for themselves. And so for me this was a turning point of how I thought about power in organizations. And whether power corrupted and whether power enabled. Is it really depends on who we’re giving the power to and how those individuals think about morality in their own self concept in their identity.
And so I would encourage you to think about people in your life. Maybe it’s your boss. Maybe it’s that next person you’re gonna hire into that really high power position. Maybe it’s yourself. In terms of your own identity, your own self-concept. And are you a person who’s going to use power to create value for the team, to create value for the organization and give that value away? Or are you going to use power for self-interest and to take that value and ultimately that is a choice. And that choice, we find in our research, is largely conditional or determined by who we are as an individual and how important that moral identity is to our definition of self.
Really important, fascinating research.
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