We often turn to those in power for their ability to lead fearlessly and inspire growth through difficult times. However, the NeuroLeadership Institute’s review of the leading research on power also shows a dangerous dark side.
In a recent article published in Strategy+Business, entitled “How the powerful slip,” we outline three key changes that take place in the brain when people start to feel more powerful. Due to the demands of higher-stakes roles and the luxuries of status, we unconsciously divert our attention away from details, people, and risk, and toward vision, goals, and optimism.
The science of power
The social psychology literature defines power as the “relative control over valued resources.” A key word there is “relative,” because as humans we feel the effects of power depending on who we have control over. A manager may feel powerful over a direct report, just as a direct report may feel powerful over an intern. A CEO may feel powerful over an entire company, but less so over his or her board of directors.
What this means is people at nearly every rank in an organization can be vulnerable to the negative effects of power. They may prioritize grand visions over minute, yet important details; lofty goals over the people working to achieve them; and optimistic outcomes over the potential pitfalls.
Inclusion as a remedy
NLI’s research indicates that inclusive behaviors may protect organizations from power running amok.
For instance, leaders who want to learn more about the details can appoint someone in meetings to explicitly champion feasibility. This is known as offering different “levels of construal,” a skill humans possess to mentally move between the abstract and the concrete. This appointed person can concern themselves more with how something will get done, rather than why it will get done.
If a leader wants to prioritize people, they can create goals that are naturally prosocial, such as creating a culture of speaking up — achieving the goal automatically means people get considered.
Lastly, if leaders want to reduce the riskiness of their decision-making, they can engage in a strategy known as mental contrasting. It involves imagining the intended outcome as just one of many possible outcomes, and visualizing how other decisions could lead to either better or worse end results.
Organizations need hierarchies to know who can make decisions, and then execute on those decisions. But without an intentional focus on tempering the powerful’s blue-sky visions for an idyllic future, organizations will remain vulnerable to the natural functions of their leaders’ own brains.
Click here to check out the full article on Strategy+Business, “How the powerful slip.”