Avoiding the Power Poison

I’m enjoying reading “Good Boss, Bad Boss” by Robert Sutton. He is well known for his book “The No Asshole Rule”. There is a new chapter in it that was excerpted on Fast Company. The basic premise is that the very fact of being in a power position for any length of time amplifies our tendencies to be blind to our weaknesses and dehumanize others who do not have as much power.

I remember thinking about this a lot during the Mark Hurd and Elliot Spitzer scandals. I found the Mark Hurd situation so surprising because he had a long-standing reputation for strict policy adherence, conservative demeanor etc. while at NCR. The WSJ had a great article at the time on this topic. It’s not that the people in power started off Machiavellian or unethical. In fact the research shows the opposite. Nice, ethical people are more likely to rise to power. But, unfortunately, those traits that helped them accumulate power, tend to disappear once they rise through the ranks.

Why is this and how can we counter this tendency? First the why. According to the psychologists one issue is “feelings of eminence” e.g. while others shouldn’t speed, they are important people with important things to do so it’s ok for them to speed. Power makes people myopic and less empathetic – it’s harder to imagine things from another’s perspective. And of course, the people surrounding those in power may contribute to these trends – telling them they are right and important.

Given the very real negative business and personal consequences of this power poisoning it’s worth thinking about how to counter this trend. I love the findings of Stanford researcher Hayagreeva Rao 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”.

This correlation or causation is well and good but obviously not every person in a position of power will be in this family situation and we need other tools to buck the poisoning trend. One tool that I believe in is the “360 Review”. Scott Weiss wrote about this on his blog. It’s something I’ve been doing yearly since joining SugarSync. The key is anonymity – staff members can tell the third party what they really think. Hopefully they can tell their boss to their face but in case not – there is another mechanism. Of course there is no guarantee of action or change from the 360 but it’s a very useful tool.

Ultimately we need to consciously encourage dissent and feedback and not punish it. When a conclusion is forming, solicit the perspective of the other side. Highlight the importance of the contribution of the dissenter. I often think of our nation’s practice on the supreme court – minority views are highlighted even though they are not the law of the land.

Finally, I don’t mean to imply by this blog post that I think I have so much power :-).  SugarSync is a fast growing but still small company. That being said, there are 55 people who are investing a big chunk of their life in SugarSync and I want to be sure not to drink the poison so that I can help their jobs be as productive and enjoyable as possible. So to that end, to my friends, family and team here I ask you to keep me honest.

Hit me with your best shot!

4 thoughts on “Avoiding the Power Poison

  1. I admit that I have trouble imagining that there was ever a time when Mark Hurd wasn’t a jerk, but the premise of the article is what I’ve always believed. People lose touch with reality when no one around them will speak the truth to them anymore. However, I think that consciously or unconsciously, some people encourage that while others encourage dissent and discussion whatever their level. It was well known at HP that if you told Mark something he didn’t want to hear, you’d get fired or demoted and he’d find someone to tell him what he wanted to hear, even if it was a lie. As a counterpoint, that wasn’t the case with Lew Platt — of course Lew (a widower) also raised his kids all by himself. So, maybe that reinforces your point!

    • I don’t know him personally, I am going by reputation and what was written about him in his NCR days. BTW he also was blessed with teenagers and a long-standing wife who, while beautiful, is not the trophy type but a strong person and still he succumbed to power.

      • Yes, my responses are tainted by personal experience — post NCR. I can’t imagine him not being a jerk — I’m not saying that the NCR reputation isn’t true. But he ran HP like it was his frat house (and the guys he hired were referred to as ‘the frat boys” and few insiders were suprised at the hubris that brought him down.

        If he was a nice guy at some point, it really is a cautionary tale for the rest of us. How do we keep dialogue open? I’m personally trying to use 360 degree feedback right now, in an organization that doesn’t have a history of honest feedback and has some bad management behaviour going on (unionized, public sector). Even after several years, and with mechanisms that preserve anonimity, it’s hard to overcome the culture and get honest feedback from my team.

  2. The fact that you are thinking and writing about the “poison of power” gives you a very good chance of not going down that path. Just keep listening to the minority view; mixed into the majority view, it makes a great cocktail!

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