Perhaps you have observed what author, Dacher Keltner, calls “The Power Paradox”: a well-liked employee gets a promotion into management and shortly after, turns into a tyrant. If you are someone who aspires to lead others, how can you avoid a fall into this trap?
First, understand that this tendency to become a hard-nosed, selfish manager is universal, but also peculiar to our culture. It’s well documented in “Why Workers Won’t Work: The Case Study of Jamaica” by Kenneth Carter. He describes the way employees change their minds after entering the supervisory ranks.
Here’s an example. Before their promotion, they report that their colleagues are motivated by training, recognition, and participation. Afterwards, they complain about a lowly fixation on only one thing: money.
At first blush, this shift in perspective may seem to be a Jamaican problem, but it isn’t. According to Keltner, whenever someone gains power, they fall into a trap in which their habits become transformed.
Before being promoted, they demonstrate enduring skills related to empathy, enthusiasm, and giving: factors used in the decision to elevate them. Afterwards their behaviour changes as they lose “the very skills that enabled <them> to gain power in the first place.”
At this point, he quotes numerous studies showing that people who feel powerful are more likely to lie, steal sweets from children and have affairs. They even give relatively less to charity and engage in more shoplifting. In the local workplace, with its lack of feedback, they can continue to exploit others for years without ever being confronted.
But how do you become the exception?
- Manage your busyness
In “The Good Samaritan Study” from 1973, even people who were committed to helping others became uncaring and unkind when they felt rushed. Update that finding and today, we have well-meaning managers with their heads buried in smartphones. They distract themselves, even as they assure an employee crying out for help: “Don’t worry, I am listening – I am a great multi-tasker.” (They aren’t, because no-one is.)
But the answer isn’t to try to do less. That’s not an option.
Instead, to escape the trap you must constantly upgrade your habits, practices and tools to surpass the mediocre standards which prevail in the Caribbean. It will help you approach world-class levels, which is the only way to add even more tasks while maintaining the same peace of mind you had before you were promoted.
- Act to give away power
Those who gain power often ignore the fact that it only exists because it’s granted by others. Ousted politicians know this fact all too well, even though it’s the first lesson they forget after winning an elected seat.
The irony is that the more power is given away, the more it is returned. Before you are promoted, you don’t need to know this fact. But once you assume a new management position, you step into the spotlight where everything you do (and don’t do) is now the subject of criticism.
Some new managers argue that it’s unfair. “But I haven’t changed,” they plead. Unfortunately, as a holder of power, new expectations have instantly and permanently been conferred.
Now, you must work hard to understand how power works, then set about crafting appropriate behaviors. Empowering and enabling other people needs to become a regular, public act.
- Beg for Feedback
Given the fact that most managers are blind to the ways power warps them, they need external help to counteract the norm. Someone nearby must be in place to tell them the truth.
In medieval courts, the joker or jester played that role. Now the task falls to a coach or consultant paid to be the exceptional voice of truth: the John the Baptist.
If, as a manager, you find yourself surrounded by people who appear to be telling you stuff you like to hear, or advice which just happens to save their skins from criticism… well, I have bad news. It’s likely that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, courtesy of your entourage of bootlickers.
In my years as a consultant, the tendency of a manager to fool himself about the true thoughts of those around him is astounding. Consider it an occupational hazard.
To prevent disaster, you must push people hard to tell you the truths you fear the most. Whenever you aren’t doing that, safely assume that you are allowing power to turn you into someone who is less kind, less generous and less concerned with the common good.
Power corrupts. But that’s not the end of the story. With it, you have a tremendous capacity to be of service but the price you pay is a kind of rigorous vigilance that non-managers don’t need. It’s the only way to avoid becoming a Trump-like tyrant.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2016, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org