Power is driving us mad - that's how good people get to be really bad bosses

Have you noticed that so many of the bosses we have are hard to get along with, understand and accept? And not because they are very demanding, stern and serious, work and performance oriented. Nooo, no way. Bosses are bad because they behave miserably, lie, are arrogant, often rude and very frequently abusive.

What is paradoxical is that many of these bad bosses were once good people, good colleagues, with whom we got along very well, who were ready to help us, to explain things to us, to give us support and ideas.

What happened to these once good people, now almost insane? Science says the power hit them in the head. Yes, moving up the hierarchy and gaining access to more decision-making power and authority makes people, even if they are good, lose their former common sense.

In this article we discover together the toxic effects of power. Specifically, gaining power almost automatically brings a loss of self-control and judgement and a tendency to abuse power. And this is not an intentional or conscious change, but an automatic, natural and unconscious one. Power corrupts and takes away our minds. And this is scientifically researched and proven.

Hubris, the toxic effect of power

A series of research studies carried out over several years by Professor Dacher Keltner's team at the University of California - Berkeley shows that as people gain power and access to resources and decisions, they tend to lose control and insight and get carried away, beginning to think of themselves as special, exceptional, entitled to disregard rules and violate even the most basic principles of common sense.

This toxic effect of power on individuals who rise up the hierarchy is called Hubris and is very often characterised by exaggerated pride, exaggerated self-confidence, insolence, impetuosity, a tendency to take exaggerated risks, a refusal to listen to others and take advice, pathological ambition and marked self-centredness.

Those whose minds are taken over by power begin to believe that they no longer have to follow the rules and that they have the right to use exceptions: "the rules are for others, I'm allowed to break them", they say, justifying their abuse by the fact that they have to get results and that their genius no longer fits into the narrow paradigm of ordinary people. The belief that rules and regulations don't apply to them is frequently compounded by pathological ambition: these people will do anything (including illegality) to get results and gain immediately, quickly, even by breaking the rules.

Often, those who gain power manifest a particular and dangerous form of incompetence based on impulsiveness, recklessness and frequent carelessness and even become unaware of their gross incompetence and lack of rational arguments for the decisions they make.

Access to power comes with the temptation to abuse

In one of his experiments, Dacher Keltner took a large group of middle school students from one school and divided them absolutely randomly into two groups. The students took a general knowledge test based on what they had learned in school, and after completing the test they were asked to mark their own work and give themselves marks.

Half of the students took and marked the test in their desks in the declassified room, while the other half went through the same experience, but in the school principal's office.What do you think happened? You may have guessed it: the students who were moved to a setting that inspired their power, i.e. the principal's office, cheated on their own marking by 50% more than the kids who gave their grades in the classroom. Just being placed in a space defined by authority and power made the children see fit to falsify their assessment by a significantly higher proportion.

The sense of power made them feel entitled to cheat, break the rules and position themselves higher than they actually deserved. And, mind you, we're talking about middle school kids, which somehow shows us that this temptation to abuse power is organic, natural, not the result of learned, trained experiences.

Further experiments conducted by Dacher Keltner's team confirmed the hypothesis: access to power, i.e. the feeling that you can make decisions on your own terms, comes with a huge temptation to abuse, to break the rules and to grant yourself illegitimate rights and resources. Of course, not all the subjects of the experiments behaved in this way, but the phenomenon has been observed in enough cases to confirm the toxic effects of power on people's judgment.

What can we learn?

It is absolutely necessary to build feedback and control mechanisms, as well as self-control, that help those who receive power to keep in touch with reality and common sense.That it is absolutely necessary for bosses to form the good and healthy habit of really listening to the voices, opinions and especially the critical signals of those they work with. And that feedback, even when it is inconvenient, is useful for maintaining balance and control in our organisations.

I'm sure the example I've given you and the story I've told you has made some of you think of the power holders where you work. But also to the power-holders in the public space at home, to politicians and heads of institutions. And I am equally sure that you have quickly found in your memory numerous examples and cases of abusive behaviour by the powerful.

Well, we have learned that power has this gift, to corrupt, and that the individuals in question do not intentionally and consciously walk the path of abuse. But this explanation gives them neither excuses nor reasons to continue to behave in this way.

If we are to have healthy organisations and a just society, it is absolutely necessary to build feedback and control mechanisms that stop or at least limit the abuse of power. It is up to all of us to discuss this subject as widely as possible and to be aware of the need to fight this phenomenon for the good of all.Power corrupts, and we must fight to bring those in power down to earth.

This article is brought to you by Blankfactor, a global leader in digital innovation for fintechs and payment processors. An American company with a global presence, Blankfactor is building a strong software engineering team in Romania, with offices in Bucharest, Cluj and Brasov and collaborating with top professionals across the country.

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