Are You A Power-Poisoned Boss?

If you're the boss, it'd do you some good to assume you are clueless, insensitive, and selfish—especially ­if ­you ­wield ­a ­lot ­of­ power ­or ­your people are performing especially well.

This is the first post in a series excerpted from a new chapter in the paperback version of Good Boss, Bad Boss, a New York Times bestseller by Robert Sutton

Good Boss, Bad Boss presents evidence that we humans are often blind to our weaknesses and giving people power amplifies this tendency: We become more focused on our own needs and wants, less focused on others, and act like the rules apply to others and not to us. Alas, recent developments suggest that staying in tune with the people you oversee is even more difficult than this book suggests. And the other disturbing effects of wielding power over others are even worse than I thought.

This unfortunate conclusion is fueled by research showing that when people secure just a little power over others, they are prone to dehumanize them—treat them in more distant, cold, and rational ways—as means to an end, not as feeling and sensitive human beings. In one study, research subjects who pretended to be senior surgeons (compared to those pretending to be nurses or junior surgeons) recommended a more painful procedure for a hypothetical 56-year-old patient and rated him as less sensitive and more passive. Another study found that people who feel powerful become less upset and feel less compassionate when talking to someone who has suffered a trauma (e.g., a close friend diagnosed with a terminal illness). Other studies show that power turns people into hypocrites. One found that (compared with the powerless) the powerful condemned others’ cheating more, yet cheated more themselves.

I could go on and on. Although Good Boss, Bad Boss was published less than two years ago, there is even stronger evidence now that if you wield authority over others, it dulls your ability to be in tune with their needs, feelings, and actions and what it’s like to work for you. Good Boss, Bad Boss proposes numerous antidotes. Among the most effective is to give the people you lead the permission and responsibility to tell you when you are out of touch or full of yourself—and to develop mentors and friends who will tell you the ugly truth as well. In this vein, my Stanford colleague Hayagreeva Rao—a most creative researcher—hypothesizes that bosses who still are married to their first spouses (rather than a “trophy” husband or wife) and have teenage children are less prone to such delusions, because no matter how much their underlings kiss up to them, the people at home don’t hesitate to bring them down a notch when required.

My conclusions that clueless and power-poisoned bosses do more damage than I thought are further fueled by the antics of CEOs and politicians. Donald Trump is one of my least favorite bosses. He seems to take pride in grabbing all the goodies and attention for himself, in humiliating others, and by twisting or ignoring inconvenient facts, all while believing he is widely beloved and admired. Former New York congressman Anthony Weiner handily demonstrated the lack of inhibition and impulse control that plague powerful people by texting pictures of his penis to a stranger. According to The New York Times, Weiner also suffered other, more mundane, signs of power poisoning: requiring staff to be in email contact at all times, yelling at them, and physically abusing office furniture now and then. He had one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress—burning through three chiefs of staff during one 18-month stretch.

Most readers will have their own favorite examples of clueless and insensitive leadership. For me, one of the most troubling and revealing was the complaint uttered by then BP CEO Tony Hayward that “I’d like my life back” after the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill. Although Hayward was heavily coached to be sensitive, was trying to placate the public, and by some accounts was a competent and caring boss, his slip shows how power can still obliterate self-control and empathy.

Finally, my conclusions are bolstered by watching powerful people act like jerks while or just after I present them with evidence about power poisoning and the toxic tandem. I experienced at least 10 such incidents in recent years. Consider this one: I ran a workshop for the top 50 or so executives of a large and profitable firm. Their ability to “fight as if they were right and to listen as if they were wrong” was exemplary for the first 30 minutes or so—until the CEO walked in (everyone else had been on time). He did so as I was explaining the effects of the “toxic tandem”: if you are the boss, followers are watching you closer than you are watching them.

I then showed how being powerful can trigger selfishness, lack of inhibition, and loss of impulse control. The CEO laughed loudly at the studies and stories I told. Then, over the next 90 minutes, he interrupted colleagues (and me) repeatedly in midsentence, dismissed points he disagreed with as “naïve” and “idiotic,” openly questioned the competence of several members of his team, made nasty comments about their personal appearance (telling one she was too short and another he needed to lose weight), and when he wasn’t talking, he focused on his BlackBerry. He answered phone calls perhaps three times during the workshop and engaged in one loudly whispered three-minute call as I tried to present. When the workshop ended, the boss thanked me and bragged about how lucky his people were because he had listened so well, encouraged them to argue with him, and treated them with respect! That guy was living in a fool’s paradise, and everyone in the room knew it—except him.

Yes, this is an extreme case. But this CEO’s lack of self-awareness is something I’ve witnessed repeatedly. And that growing pile of research implies that such delusions become even more pronounced when events unfold that make bosses feel even more powerful.

If you are a boss, you are especially at risk if you are getting increased attention and praise, enjoying a hefty pay increase or lavish new trappings, or if your people have been performing especially well lately. There are advantages to feeling powerful; there is evidence that it prompts people to be more action oriented.

But if you are so clueless that you don’t know what motivates your followers and don’t know the nuances of their skills, if you’re such a jerk that your people keep calling in sick and your best people keep leaving, just being action oriented won’t do you or your organization much good.

[Image: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

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5 Comments

  • Surely

    After careful consideration I've decided to do what I always wanted: to change my first name. Imagine my surprise when my CEO threatened to terminate me yesterday over this. I haven't done it legally yet, so he said you have keep your old name or get fired. He think he is THE KING, because everyone kisses up to him.You would think he has more on his plate than this. He wants obedience, I am not gonna give it to him. What is your opinion? 

  • Jane Perdue

    If you're going to be a leader, you gotta decide.  Are you going to let power control you or are you going to control it?

  • Patrick Reilly

    Having worked for a very bad boss for 3 years and now helping others work with bad bosses I am sensitized to many of Bob Sutton's concerns. They are real, they are painful and there are consequences. Look at the data: people who work for these folks suffer an inordinate number of ailments and illnesses.

    The main medicine in my experience is organizational accountability and leadership courage. Once there is someone holding a leader accountable for bad behavior and its consequences things change or they leave. The bad boss is most difficult to deal with at the CEO especially when they are successful in bringing the money in the door. It takes Board members with guts, courage and a long term point of view to wheel them in. Without someone above holding those below accountable and acting with courage themselves bad bosses are hard to corral.

  • Al Watts

    You are absolutely right, and unfortunately those who most need this heads-up won't read or believe it. You reinforce why "authenticity" is more than "just being ourselves;" when we're jerks that doesn't cut it. In my book Navigating Integrity . . . I make the point that authenticity is about "getting real," which includes cultivating objective feedback loops. This is part of why "360 degree" surveys are useful, although some are so far gone that they discount the results.

  • OscarMarroquin

    What an incredibly sad situation you experienced in your
    meeting.  I say sad because the group was
    apparently held hostage by the arrogance and stupidity of the CEO.  I’m not sure you can describe a better
    example of a failure in leadership.

    Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” describes leaders
    that take the company from good to great as level 5 leaders.  According to Jim, level 5 leadership is a
    leader that builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of
    personal humility and professional will. 
    The CEO in your meeting had professional will, however lacked personal
    humility, a key ingredient.

    The Stanford prison experiment conducted
    in 1971 is an example of how ordinary people can be negatively influenced when
    power and authority is given to them.    http://www.prisonexp.org/
      In that experiment, students were given
    roles as guards and prisoners (at random). 
     The students role playing as guards became overwhelmed with power.  I think this experiment proved
    that situational power CAN cause bad behavior.

    Leaders need to have a reality check daily and understand
    their purpose in order to be great.  I
    have often heard the phrase, “if you take yourself too seriously, no one else
    will.”  The CEO in your meeting was taking himself way too seriously, he was a leader in title
    only.