The Paradox of Power

By Eric Vandersluis

“Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”  Lao Tzu

In today’s hyper-competitive world, power is multidimensional and complex; technology, speed and the accessibility of information have made it even more so. This diffusion of knowledge and information, constantly at our fingertips, has created a new paradigm for how to manage power in relation to ourselves, to others and across organizations. With information increasingly accessible to all, the traditional notions of hierarchical power are starting to erode. This fundamental shift has created the need for a more nuanced view of power and power dynamics in organizational settings.

The top-down model of leadership through heavy-handed authority is no longer sustainable. Autocratic leaders who lead through scare tactics do more damage to organizations than peers who embrace a new age of leadership. Short-term results may be there for these leaders briefly, but longer term fallout is there too and perilous to ignore:

  •  A poisoned organizational culture
  • High potential employees flee
  • Morale suffers
  • Unsustainable results

Unfortunately, in today’s world, business are still managed to the quarter and the Street looks for short term performance results with little regard for longer term implications of culture and engagement. This short-sighted and myopic view has real impact. Leaders that get immediate results are rewarded. How they go about getting results isn’t always considered, leaving many in power that still lead with an iron fist. In Lao Tsu’s words, they lead through strength, not through power.

The real challenge with this style of leadership, according to the Approach-Inhibition Theory of Power*, is that as we gain influence and power:

  • We lose the capacity to empathize with others
  • Our sensitivity to consequences and punishment decreases
  • We become less sensitive to the conditions and emotions of others
  • We talk/dominate conversation and meetings more
  • We experience an increase in positive emotions (they feel good about being in power)

All of which ultimately creates unhealthy relationships, an unhealthy culture and a power dynamic that has negative psychological impact on the entire organization.

If you think the psychological impact isn’t real, or doesn’t have a place in work, consider this….think about your worst boss ever. What comes to mind? How does it make you feel? Likely, not great. As a matter of fact, when we ask this question in our sessions. most of the responses are heated and emotionally charged. It doesn’t matter how long ago you experienced this leader, the emotions still feel raw and have a powerful impact on how you think and ultimately act in the moment. Imagine operating daily under a leader like this (trick statement- you just did), do you think you can really perform at your best? Be honest. If not, what did you leave on the table? Multiply that impact across your team and organization and think about the amount of lost effort and productivity.

Again, according to the Approach-Inhibition of Power, we know that individuals in lower power positions demonstrate:

  • Increased sensitivity to punishment and the consequences of their actions
  • Increased sensitivity to the emotions of others (emotions are contagious, so if they see their peer upset, it has a ripple effect on them)
  • Increased experiences of negative emotions
  • A proclivity to talk/contribute less

The question then becomes, how do we deal with power in today’s hyper-competitive and fast world where job responsibilities seem to grow exponentially? Leaders feel they don’t have the time to slow down, at least that’s the thought. But what if slowing down was the first step to mastering yourself, to learning the difference between strength and power and thereby becoming a  more resonant leader? We hear it all the time, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.’ But the reality is, to become an effective, long-term leader today, you must. If you want to adapt to the new complexities we face today and be prepared for what lies ahead, you can’t ignore the fact that we need new ways to lead, and ultimately we need to forge a new understanding of power and its impact on those around us. To do this, first and foremost we MUST start with self. It’s through the process of building self-awareness that we can truly begin to recognize the impact and affect we have on others and in turn we can begin to better understand how we use power in support of ourselves and of others.

 

*Berdahl, J., & Anderson, C. (2002). The experience of power: Examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1362-1377. Oveis, C., van derLowe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., Dacher, K., & van Kleef, G. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1315-1322. Keltner, D., Anderson , C., & Gruenfeld, D. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265-284.

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