4 warning signs you are drunk on power

power
Michelle Gibbings

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written on November 13, 2017

When you stop listening to other people’s ideas, your thought process becomes narrow which impacts decision making and organisational success.

Power can affect people in strange ways, with examples across multiple industries, the Harvey Weinstein scandal being the latest.

Dacher Keltner from Berkley University found that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively. For example, they may have affairs, drive aggressively, communicate in rude and disrespectful ways or lie.

In his book The Power Paradox, Keltner says that power is something a person acquires by improving the lives of other people in their social network. In this way, power is granted or bestowed by others. However, he found that often this very experience of power destroys the skills that gave the person the power in the first place. As a result, they can eventually lose the power that they acquired.

Organisational hierarchies are the very definition of power structures. The further up the totem pole, the more power you have.

The danger for organisations is how this flows into decision making. Research shows that humans are often overconfident in their belief about their abilities. It’s one of the many brain based biases that exist. The problem is that it’s worse the further up the food chain you go.

A 2010 study by the University of Southern California and London Business School found there’s a correlation between overconfidence and how much power a person has.  

The more power a person feels, the more confident they are of the accuracy of their thoughts and beliefs. This means people in powerful positions are more confident that their opinions are right.

For leaders who are being charged with solving complex problems and making difficult decisions, being overly confident may result in them failing to heed advice or look for alternative opinions. This in turn leads to ineffective decision making.

It’s important for leaders to be alert to the warning signs that power is negatively impacting how they think and behave.

Here are four to consider:

  • The leader thinks their rights and needs outweigh those of others and so their decision making is all about what works best for them.
  • The leader stops listening to the ideas and opinions of others, believing that their knowledge and insights hold more weight and value than others.
  • They ignore feedback from people seeing it as unhelpful and irrelevant, rather than reflecting on what is driving the feedback and what they may want to adjust to be more effective.
  • They believe they are smarter than others and have little more to learn, and so they stop seeking out new ideas and diversity of thought.

Remember, when you start to think you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room.

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  

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