Managers & Leaders: Warning signs your leader might be drunk on power

In this article published in the Managers & Leaders magazine, Michelle describes the warning signs for you to be aware of should your leader be drunk on power. 

The negative impacts that can arise when a person experiences power have long been documented, with instances throughout history – the recent case of Harvey Weinstein being one example.

Dacher Keltner, from Berkley University, found through his research that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively. He writes in his book, The Power Paradox, that power is something a person acquires by improving the lives of those around them. Therefore, he concludes, power is granted or bestowed by others. Over time however; by behaving badly, that person loses power.

When you start to think you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room

Organisational hierarchies are the very definition of power structures. The further up you are on the totem pole the more power you have.

The danger for organisations is how this impacts decision-making. Research shows that humans are often overconfident in their belief about their abilities. It’s one of the many brain-based biases that exist. The problem is that it’s worse the further up the food chain you go.

A 2010 study by the University of Southern California and London Business School, Power and over confident decision-making, found there’s a correlation between overconfidence and how much power an individual has.

The more power a person feels, the more confident they are of the accuracy of their thoughts and beliefs. This means people in powerful positions are more confident that their opinions are right.

For leaders who are being charged with solving complex problems and making difficult decisions, being overly confident may result in them failing to heed advice or look for alternative opinions. In turn, leading to ineffective decision-making.

Read the signs

It’s important for leaders to be alert to the warning signs that power is negatively impacting how they think and behave.

Here’s four warning signs to consider:

  1. The leader thinks their rights and needs outweigh those of others and so their decision­-making is all about what works best for them
  2. The leader stops listening to the ideas and opinions of others, believing that their knowledge and insights hold more weight and value than others
  3. They ignore feedback from people seeing it as unhelpful and irrelevant, rather than reflecting on what is driving the feedback and what they may want to adjust to be more effective
  4. They believe they are smarter than others and have little more to learn, and so they stop seeking out new ideas and diversity of thought

Remember, when you start to think you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room.

Balancing act

In political and diplomatic circles, the concept of a ‘balance of power’ is used and it proposes that outcomes are enhanced when no single nation is so powerful they are able to dominate world affairs.

This concept is based on the understanding that power in the hands of the few isn’t healthy. It equally applies in the workplace.

To have a healthy, thriving work environment it’s essential to have a balance of power. In a work context, this means a culture where power is shared and distributed, and no individual leader dominates over everyone else.

How to react

The action to take if you see these warning signs in your boss depends on your relationship with them.

If they have a growth mindset and are open to feedback, it can start with a conversation about how you are working together. Encourage them to focus on how the team works together, as healthy team dynamics can dilute any detrimental impact.

If they have a fixed mindset and are therefore closed to feedback, then you should seek to find a way to work around them and to ensure that their behaviour doesn’t rub off on you. In this situation it’s important to have a network of colleagues and others around you who will support you.

Often those of us who work with powerful people will inadvertently absorb similar behavioural traits. Be open to creating the right culture by:

  • Not surrounding yourself with sycophants
  • Being open to challenge and constructive debate
  • Creating open and transparent decision-making processes, which enable people to be involved
  • Owning your mistakes – seeking feedback and making amends.

Abraham Lincoln said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. (Of course, I’m sure if he was writing that today he’d use gender neutral language).

Those words still ring true in today’s working environment. When you know the warning signs of overconfidence, you can be a better leader – and help others be the best leaders that they can be too.

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

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