How to Manage PowerThere is an old saying, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." At TASIS Dorado, we are committed to raising a generation of selfless leaders who impact their world through service, while avoiding corruption. We believe it's important--and possible!
In an October 2016 Harvard Business Review article titled "Managing Yourself: Don't Let Power Corrupt You," Dacher Keltner (University of California/ Berkeley) shares a troubling finding from his research in a variety of organizations: "While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing, when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade." His research shows that people in positions of power are much more likely to interrupt colleagues, check their phones while others are talking, raise their voices, say insulting things, tell jokes that embarrass others, take credit for a group effort, swear, forget people's names, cheat, eat with their mouths open, and not stop their luxury cars for pedestrians. The irony is that behaviors like these actually undermine leaders' effectiveness by depressing the performance of those around them. In the end, they are self-defeating.
Is it possible for a person to "move up the ladder" without growing entitled and being corrupted by power? According to Keltner, the first step is awareness of the feelings that come with ascending: "My research has shown that power puts us in something like a manic state, making us feel expansive, energized, omnipotent, hungry for rewards, and immune to risk – which opens us up to rash, rude, and unethical actions." To resist the negative aspects, it turns out that simply recognizing and naming feelings of joy and confidence makes people less likely to be confrontational and arrogant.
When Keltner counsels up-and-coming leaders, he advises them to remember and repeat the virtuous behaviors that helped them rise in the first place. He also helps them practice and develop three essential practices: empathy, gratitude, and generosity. (Click on the link to see his tips for cultivating these virtues.) These practices have been shown to sustain benevolent leadership. In U.S. military mess halls, for example, soldiers go through the serving line in reverse order of seniority – officers eat last, showing respect for their troops. Similarly, small expressions of gratitude yield positive results – "a pat on the back from their teachers" makes students more likely to take on difficult problems. A Wharton study showed that when managers took the time to thank their employees, their workers were more engaged and productive. And simple acts of generosity – contributing new ideas or directly helping others with projects, donating to charities – create a more productive climate.
Acting in these ways will bring out the best in your colleagues, concludes Keltner. "And you, too, will benefit, with a burnished reputation, long-lasting leadership, and the dopamine-rich delights of advancing the interests of others."