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Published 08 May 2013 07:51, Updated 09 May 2013 11:28
If you can’t identify with subordinates, you may feel less empathy toward them, which can sometimes lead to inappropriate behaviour.
Power changes people. We’ve all seen the leaders who have come to believe their own publicity departments, the sun kings, the entitled lotharios.
And there is always the question of whether they were always like that, deep down, or whether success has corrupted them.
Then, we may ask why some people appear to be corrupted by power and others aren’t, or what the corrupted women are doing while their male equivalents are groping the staff, concreting their driveways on the company credit card, or handing lucrative work contracts to their friends.
It doesn’t seem right that, as one eminent US academic once told me, naughty, haughty female CEOs are off buying shoes or eating too many pieces of cake.
A glance over some psychology research tells us a few things:
People who start off as selfless will continue to be so when they achieve power, while selfish people will continue to be unhelpful and self-centred when ennobled with power, according to Professor Serena Chen and her colleagues.
High-powered people hold others to a higher standard. They are more likely to cheat and were less tolerant of others breaking the same rules.
“[They] break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why people misbehave in high office,” according to an Economist article about the work of Joris Lammers at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University, in Illinois.
It is much easier to climb over people and not take their needs into account if you can’t identify with them, according to Dr Jamie Ward, reader in psychology at the University of Sussex.
Florida State University professor Jon Maner found that when people were given power, they thought they were more attractive than they really were. They also misconstrued innocuous comments as come-ons.
Both men and women “tended to touch their subordinates more, they maintained more direct eye contact, they behaved in an overall more flirtatious manner”, Maner was reported to say.
Maner says we hear less about sex scandals among powerful women because there are fewer women in those positions and they are more discreet.
“I think power makes women (just as it does to men) more likely to follow their desires and impulses – they may have the impulse to start an affair. But for some reason they seem to lack the desire to upload pictures of their private parts to Twitter or to sexually harass or attempt to rape a bellboy. I guess women have less of such sexual aggression impulses than men, ” he told NPR.
“It is a co-created dynamic,” she says.
Often people abdicate their own responsibilities to a senior person, expecting them to have all the answers.
“Some people become very passive,” she says.
The “followers” need to find ways to give their leader feedback about how they are doing. This is, in essence, managing up. The leader’s leader – which may be a company chair – also needs to start coaching.
They also need to separate their feelings about the leader’s personality from the role. The leader may be a nice person, but if they are behaving inappropriately, someone needs to tell them.
O’Rourke acknowledges this can be a difficult conversation, but it can be started with a question about how they think they are doing.
“You are trying to encourage an open inquiry,” she says. “You have to be very careful and think about the time and the place. You have to be clear about what you are trying to achieve.
“You are not trying to compete or show them up. You have to take the ego out of it.”
“I think, when you spend real time out there [in the business world], you come across people who are really full of themselves. They are never wrong and, if they are wrong, it is always someone else’s fault,” he says.
Anderson says success just reinforces these behaviours in people who already have that tendency.
If you are stuck with a boss who is a narcissist, you need to find ways to deal with them if you are going to survive their reign, says Anderson. You will need to reinforce their views to get into a position where you can influence them.
Influencing them will be all about showing how your suggestion will be to their own benefit.
Anderson says that if organisations want to avoid getting corrupt or narcissistic leaders, they will have to stop recruiting for those behaviours. Self belief, aggression, win-at-all-costs and ruthlessness may seem like appropriate characteristics for an ambitious company but, in a leader, it can be despotic.
“Organisations get the people they want,” says Anderson.