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The Dark Side of Power (Part 1)

The Dark Side of Power (Part 1)
So we’ve talked about the definition of power. We’ve now talked about the benefits of power, that come when you feel powerful, whether you’re in the powerful position or not. But when the psychology of power, when you feel powerful, what those benefits are. But I think it’s extremely important that we understand the risks, the potential costs of power and what that can do to our behavior. Before we then understand how to build our power. It’s important to understand not only the benefits, but also those risks, those costs. Before we really understand the strategies we can use to increase or enhance the power that we feel or the power that we have.
So what I want to do now is really to start to dive into some of those risks, some of those costs, at least the potential cost. And so before we get into that, and before I share with you our thinking and our latest research on those risks, I’d like you to think for yourself about what you’ve seen as the potential risks of power. Have you seen power hurt your team or hurt your organization? And if so, how? Before we get into those risks, I’d like you to reflect on your own, maybe pause, maybe take a break.
And just give yourself some space to think about the risks of power, what those potential costs are, and maybe how you’ve seen power hurt your team or your organization. Think about that for a moment, then come back and I’ll share with you some of the latest thinking and some of our work on those risks. Or how power can hurt or destroy value for your team or organization.
So the first risk that I need to bring your attention to is that the research on power and confidence is extremely clear. Power leads you to be over confident. Confidence absolutely is an asset. In order to lead in today’s modern organization you have to be confident. You have to be confident in your decisions. You have to be confident in your style. You have to be confident that you’re making the right choices to engage your employees, your customers. You have to be confident. But what we’re finding is that power when you feel powerful, it actually leads you to be overconfident. Let me share with you some of these data.
So Nate Fast and some of his colleagues published a study several years ago where, again, they prime people to be in a high power position or to think of themselves as extremely powerful. Other people to feel powerless or to have less or low power. And then they had them estimate on a task and to see how confident they were. And they ask them to give an interval or what we call a confidence interval. So if I’m asking you for example to predict the weather today and you say it’s going to be 15 degrees Celsius, or 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And then I ask you to give me a range around that temperature in terms of your 95% confidence.
So 70 degree Fahrenheit, I’m 95% confident it’s gonna be between 62 degrees and 74 degrees. That range, that’s what we mean by a 95% confidence interval. And what’s fascinating is what you’re seeing here with these data is that low power people, people that were primed to feel powerless,
actually had a wider interval than people who were primed to feel very powerful. People who were primed to feel powerful, their interval was much smaller on a decision that they had literally no information about. All right so it’s one thing if you’re predicting the weather. You could walk outside, you could see the weather, you have some information. On a decision that you essentially have no information about, whether you feel powerful or whether you feel powerless actually impacted how big or how wide that confidence interval was. The smaller that interval for those high power people, the more certain you are even though you have no information. That is overconfidence. Same thing is true, same study.
They looked at, in this case, there was a correct answer to the question. And they looked at the distance from the correct answer. And what they found is while the low power people had a wider interval, their actual estimate was much closer to the correct answer than those of the high power condition. Where people had a much more certain tighter confidence interval, but their estimate of the answer was actually further away than the correct answer than those people who were primed to feel powerless. So not only are we more confident in our decision, but we’re actually more wrong in our decision. And that is a potential danger of high power.
And in this study they also followed that up with a task where, think of a trivia game where you’re answering questions. And you get to bet on yourself. And you’re betting $1 at a time per question. And if you get it right, you win $1. If you get it wrong, you lose $1. And the data I’m showing you here, everyone was assigned a formal supervisor role. So from a formal structural power, everybody’s the same. But then what they did is they primed people to feel like they were the expert, and they prime people to feel as if they were not the expert.
And what they found is that when you’re in that powerful position, that supervisor role, and you feel like you’re the expert, that expert power that we talked about earlier? You’re actually much more likely to lose money, to make gambles, when you are going to get the answer wrong. Versus when you’re in that powerful position, but you know you’re not the expert. You’re much less likely to lose money. In fact, you are more likely to gain money in this simple trivia quiz. What does that mean for you? What does that mean for your teams? If you’re in that formal supervisory role and you believe that you’re the single most expert in that room, be very, very careful.
Because you run the risk of being extremely overconfident, not taking into account other people’s opinions, etcetera. And possibly making the wrong decision, even though you’re really certain in that decision. That’s what I would take away from these data, is to be very careful especially when you’re in that formal supervisory role. That when you feel powerful you’ll feel very certain, you’ll be very confident. But be very careful because you could be very, very wrong in your decision. And that’s exactly what we found in other studies. See and colleagues several years ago did four different experiments with totally different samples in individuals.
We had graduate students who were incoming into a graduate program who were working, and we were studying prior to them coming into the graduate school. We had current students, undergraduates, we had working adults, and then another sample of undergraduate students, so very diverse. Some in the US, some spread out to all around the world, some controlling for their age, their gender, nationality, their affect. Or another word for that would be just their emotional state, whether it’s positive or negative. And what we found to be true across all four of these different samples, different experiments is that when people feel powerful their confidence goes up. But very importantly their willing to listen and take advice from other people, goes down.
So as your power goes up so does your confidence. But then because of that increase in confidence, your willingness to take advice from other people and incorporate that advice into your decision making, actually goes down. Very dangerous in the world we live in today, where in most cases no single person, even if you’re the most powerful person in the room. No single person has all of the information that’s necessary for making the best decision. And if you’re that person who feels extremely powerful, therefore extremely confident, you have to be very careful not to block out other people’s advice. And make sure that you’re creating an open and safe environment for people to give that advice.
And that you’re actually willing to take it, take that advice and do something with it. What’s interesting is it’s even true if that advice is coming from an expert. I found this study fascinating. This is by one of my colleagues Lee Tost here at the University of Michigan, where she studied the same effect that you see here. Where power increases confidence but reduces your willingness to take advice from other people. She went with her colleagues and studied that same effect but wanted to know if it was true. Whether the person giving the advice was experienced or inexperienced, expert or not an expert. And what you see here is people who are primed to be less powerful, powerless.
Regardless of whether the advisor is inexperienced or experienced, is much more likely to take that advice into consideration when making decisions. It doesn’t mean you’re gonna go with the advice, it doesn’t mean you’re going to accept the advice as true, but you’re willing to take it into account, and consider it when making decisions. But contrast that with the high power person in this study. It didn’t matter whether or not the adviser or the person giving the advice was an expert or not. The high power person relative to the low power is ignoring the advice of the other person and not taking that advice into consideration. Because you feel powerful, you feel confident, you don’t need that advice.
At least that’s how you think. And so you are potentially ignoring or overlooking extremely valuable information. Because you have people here, the experienced advisor, who are experts. Who can give you a very valuable perspective and a very valued and valuable piece of insider information. And you’re ignoring it, you’re overlooking it. Very dangerous in today’s modern organization. And so my question for you that I’d like you to really think deeply about, because I’ve given you some examples of some of the risks or costs of power. Is how have you seen power affect the degree to which people listen and take the advice of others?
If it’s true, and our data suggests that it is, that as power, as you feel more powerful, your confidence goes up and then your willingness to take advice reduces. How have you seen power affect the degree to which people listen and take advice from others? Your boss, maybe yourself, other people that you’ve worked with. When they’re in positions of power or when they’re the expert. Are they more or are they less willing to take the advice or at least listen to the advice of others? Think about that. Maybe engage in the discussion forums. Share examples with your classmates. To see if we can figure out why is it that some powerful people really listen and take the advice of others.
And why is it that, on average, powerful people tend to be more confident, even overconfident, to the point that they’re less willing to listen and take the advice of others.
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