Sydney Morning Herald: Are you drunk on power? - Michelle Gibbings

I spoke with journalist Alexandra Cain recently about how easy it is to become insufferable if you’ve got even the slightest bit of power, and how important it is not to abuse your power in business.

You can read the full article (by Alexandra Cain) on the Sydney Morning Herald website, here.

A recent experience with a client reminded me about how easy it is to become insufferable if you’ve got a bit of power.

I was involved with a team putting together a website for a large company. Among the group were graphic designers, software developers, account managers and the client.

Getting to the pointy end of the project, everyone was under a reasonable amount of stress.

And the client was behaving like giant toddler in a toy shop. Picking things up and breaking things. Tantrums. Refusal to listen to reason.

It was painful to be part of and also to watch. A better end wasn’t achieved because of the behaviour. It was largely time-wasting.

But I bet this person would have behaved normally if they had not been the one with the most power in the group, by virtue of being the client. It reminded me about how important it is not to abuse your power in small business.

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and the founder of Change Meridian. She says even in small business many organisations are structured hierarchically, which sets the foundations for a power imbalance.

“As a person moves up the totem pole into bigger leadership roles, so too does their sphere of influence and decision-making capacity. Increased feelings of power come with that,” she said.

As people become more senior, junior staff are also less willing to challenge them.

“Consequently, bosses get used to their ideas being heard and wishes acted on, and they are often flattered by those trying to court their favour,” Gibbings said.

These elements can create a toxic mix where the leader feels entitled to have what they want when they want it.

Overconfidence is another reason why we start to hit the bottle of power. This is when we believe our judgment or the decisions we make are more accurate and reliable than they are. “We all suffer from this, but feeling powerful exacerbates it.”

Gibbings says it’s important to recognise it’s OK not to have all the answers and to be open to learning.

“Don’t surround yourself with sycophants and yes people and be open to constructive debate. Create open and transparent decision-making processes, which enable people to be involved,” she said.

Owning your mistakes, seeking feedback, making amends and constantly improving are other ways to combat overconfidence.

“Check your facts and interpretation of those facts and watch out for overconfidence bias, which may adversely impact your thought processes and decisions,” Gibbings said.

Emma Bannister is the founder and chief executive of Presentation Studio and the author of an upcoming book, Visual Thinking: How to transform the way you think, communicate and influence with presentations.

She says one of the reasons why leaders become drunk on power is because it can be very lonely at the top.

“The higher you go the less likely people are to push back and tell you you’re wrong. If you’re a powerhouse you keep going, spurred on by a private agenda, failing to see the wider impact of your actions. When you get what you want it can be energising and you grow from the power this brings without even realising,” she said.

So it’s essential to have a balance of power to have a healthy, thriving work environment.

“This is a culture where power is shared and distributed, and no one leader dominates others,” Gibbings said.

Bannister also suggests maximising opportunities for everyone to reset.

“Restructures and fresh blood can balance endemic behaviour. Don’t surround yourself with people you know will agree with you. Connect with others. CEOs who chat directly with their teams via sites like LinkedIn or Yammer keep the door open for ideas and collaboration,” she said.

Taking a proactive approach to power management is important because a leader who is drunk on power will ultimately affect the business’s success.

“Behaviour flows down,” Bannister said. “Bad leadership equals bad management, which leads to a toxic culture. Copycat behaviour normalises the action from the top and employees act through fear rather than being motivated by a common goal.”

Failure to recognise individual efforts and ideas eventually leads to brain drain and negative moral.

“There are no winners in these situations,” Bannister said.

Having humility, responding not reacting and respecting others’ views are ways to avoid a stint in rehab to address disorderly displays of power as a small business owner.