How is it that well-regarded, hard-working, ethical people end up doing the dumbest, most unethical things?
How is it that the D.C. Schools Chancellor that violated an ethics policy that he wrote less than a year ago was forced to resign? That in front of Congress, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf seemed oblivious to the seriousness of ethical violations that included over 5000 employees setting up fake accounts? Or the too-numerous-to-mention scandals revealed in the #metoo movement, as women report sexual harassment, lewd behavior and even rape by men in the entertainment industry and elsewhere? It seems nearly every day some leader is forced to resign due to an ethical violation.
Recent research in neuropsychology suggests some reasons why. It turns out that when people are elevated to positions of power, their brains change.
Dacher Kelter , psychology professor at UC Berkley, has been studying the impact of power on brain functioning. He has found in study after study, in the laboratory and the real world, when people are given more power, they become more impulsive, less risk averse, and less able to see other people’s perspectives. Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, has shown there are physical differences between more-powerful and less-powerful people. He took MRI’s of their brains and found that the part of the brain that is responsible for an aspect of empathy called “mirroring” is impaired in more powerful people.
Does this mean that all leaders are destined to become unethical jerks?
Certainly not, but the following suggestions will help you make sure you are not one of those who does:
1. Don’t assume you are immune. Whenever someone has the capacity to alter someone else’s condition or has higher status in a group due to wealth or credentials, they have power. That means that no matter who you are if you have power in a given situation, your brain is susceptible to change. This includes women, although some research suggests they may be somewhat less susceptible.
2. Ask for feedback from people who will tell you the truth. Ask if you behave in ways that suggest you feel entitled to special treatment or think you are superior to others. Ask close friends outside your company. Notice what your spouse or children say. They may say it in anger, but when things calm down, ask yourself if they might have a point.
3. Listen more than you talk. Don’t interrupt. Interrupting is a common behavior that is a kind of abuse of power.
4. Spend time alone, away from your admirers. Use the time to become more mindful of your feelings and behavior. Research shows that when we recognize and label our feelings, we activate the part of the brain that makes it less likely that we will make irrational decisions based on those feelings. When you reflect on your behavior, ask whether you are still doing some of the things others have given you negative feedback about.
5. Adopt an abundance mentality. Be generous to others; give them credit; thank people; express appreciation. Know that you are blessed and that there is plenty to go around.
Paying attention to the way that power may have affected your brain is not just a nice thing to do. It will help you engender loyalty, engagement and commitment to the mission of your organization from the people on whom you depend for your success. And it will keep you out of trouble.
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Dr. Joanne Irving is a strategic advisor and coach for senior executives at mid and large size companies, helping them dramatically improve business outcomes and the quality of life for themselves and those around them. Learn more.
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