In 2001, a U.S. navy submarine slammed into a Japanese fishing trawler filled with high school students off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. The trawler sank, killing nine people, including four high school students. The submarine was participating in the Navy’s Distinguished Visitor Embarkation (DVE) program, which brings CEOs, journalists, members of Congress, and other VIPs onboard nuclear submarines to show off what the ships can do. And that’s exactly what the USS Greeneville was doing–showing off aggressive and unnecessary maneuvers, including a move where a submarine rapidly ascends 400 feet in the water until it shoots up from the surface–when it crashed.
Scott Waddle, the commander in charge of the submarine, ultimately took responsibility, but he also blamed his crew for making their own mistakes. In a sense, he projected his own desire to show off on his underlings. “I did not micro-manage my crew, I empowered them to do their job,” Waddle said at the time.
Waddle isn’t necessarily a bad person for blaming the crew. He just suffered from “self-anchoring,” a characteristic common in many powerful people that occurs when leaders project their own emotions, traits, and attitudes onto the people they’re supposed to represent.
In a paper recently published in Psychological Science, Jennifer Overbeck, a visiting professor at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, and her colleagues examined the idea that social power increases the incidence of self-anchoring.
“It’s not that they’re trying to do a bad job or be selfish. It’s that they are referring to ‘How do I feel, how do I think?'” They simply believe that that generalizes to everyone,” she says.
The researchers conducted three studies for the paper, all of which compared self-anchoring in powerless and powerful respondents. In all of the studies, powerful people relied on themselves as the primary data point. Disturbingly, in two of the studies, self-anchoring occurred mainly when powerful participants thought that other group members agreed with their negative attitudes, traits, and feelings more than their positive ones. “They want to be able to say ‘If I’m bad, greedy, and corrupt, well, so is everybody else. My group is just like me, I’m not any worse,'” explains Overbeck.
Overbeck has long studied the dynamics of power. Contrary to this report, most of her research has focused on how power doesn’t necessarily make people corrupt or dysfunctional. But she still didn’t find the results to be surprising.
“If you think about team leaders and CEOs, they’re frequently called on to be the representative–the spokesperson,” she explains. “The world sees them as the group. There starts to be some confusion in self-concept and their own desires.” Steve Jobs may have just been one important man in a big company, but to the world, he embodied Apple. The same goes for Amazon and Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Virgin, and most other big companies in the western world. (In other places–like Japan and China–leaders feel more responsibility towards the group. The research results would probably be different).
Combatting human nature and cultural norms is difficult, but Overbeck has a few recommendations: “Awareness, training, monitoring, and transparency systems would be helpful–any kind of corporate training that encourages full communication,” she says. She cites Ideo as a company that puts these suggestions into practice already by actively breaking down hierarchies and having group brainstorming sessions.