The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Influence of Power


In 2000 Michael Maccoby wrote about the incredible pros of narcissistic leaders and the inevitable cons. Yes, these larger-than-life leaders can be inspirational, but they are also emotionally isolated and paranoid. Moreover, they are poor listeners, lack empathy and any perceived threat can trigger rage. You’d wonder what other incredible pros (besides inspiration) can make up for these huge shortfalls (for that you are referred to the article of Maccoby).

Since 2000 we have seen many corporate scandals. At the centre of these scandals, too often, there was a powerful (narcissistic?) leader who seemingly acted as if common rules and safeguards did not apply to them. You wonder how people end up “leading” like that?

Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau wrote a fascinating article in the Academy of Management Journal about this phenomenon. They found that:

  • Power makes people become more self-focused;
  • Self-focus makes people more likely to act upon their own preferences; and
  • This makes them to ignore (un)ethical social influences.

So, this increased self-focus does not have to be negative as acting on your own preferences can also lead to  increased ethical decisions in cases where social influence within an organisation provides a lower ethical standard. One of the measurements on the Big 5 personality dimensions is agreeableness. Agreeableness refers to the extent to which a person is good-natured, helpful, trusting, and cooperative.

Leaders typically have a lower score on agreeableness and a high score is indeed negatively correlated with leadership. You will see this lower score on agreeableness in action when leaders are willing to take unpopular decisions. Power leads people to become less compliant (obeying direct requests), less conforming (internal motivation to respond appropriately or respond in order to fit in.

Pitesa and Thau conclude that many systems within organisations rely on social influence in order to produce higher ethical standards. People in high-powered roles will be less likely to respond to these types of systems, but instead may need an incentive-based system (rewards/punishments). Moreover, organisations need to hire people with high ethical preferences because when holding positions of power people will “default” to their personal ethical preferences.

On the other hand, people with low power will be much more susceptible to unethical social influence and may be persuaded to to join in ethical misconduct. Studies show that raising these peoples private self-focus made them less susceptible. This can be done through practicing so-called if-then plans helping them to focus on personal standards of ethical behaviour.

How is  power influencing your ethical choices today?



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