You’ve probably noticed a funny pattern when people are given roles with power. You might have a person in your mind who completely transformed under the influence of some new found power, and maybe you witnessed them become a fraction of the person they once were.
One of the best documented instances of the influence that power has on humans’ behavior is in the famous psychology experiment called the Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip G. Zimbardo wanted to know the impact that a person’s situation had on his or her behavior and particularly became curious to know if prison guards chose their position because they already had power-hungry, and in some cases, sadistic personalities, or if they became that way once entering the job. Twenty-four male college students were screened for psychological normality to eliminate candidates with psychological problems and paid $15 a day to take part in the experiment. The young men were divided into two groups by the flip of a coin which assigned them to the role of prisoner or guard. The guards were given no specific direction on how to be guards, but according to the Stanford Prison Experiment website, “Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners. The guards made up their own set of rules, which they then carried into effect under the supervision of Warden David Jaffe, an undergraduate from Stanford University.”
According to a Simply Psychology article by Saul Mcleod, “Within hours of beginning the experiment some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it… As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and assertive. After the experiment was over, “most of the guards found it difficult to believe that they had behaved in the brutalizing ways that they had. Many said they hadn’t known this side of them existed or that they were capable of such things. The prisoners, too, couldn’t believe that they had responded in the submissive, cowering, dependent way they had. Several claimed to be assertive types normally. When asked about the guards, they described the usual three stereotypes that can be found in any prison: some guards were good, some were tough but fair, and some were cruel.”
Even the best and noblest of people can behave in less-than favorable customs when given power. But why does this happen? According to a HBR article, author Lou Solomon says “Research shows that personal power actually interferes with our ability to empathize. Dacher Keltner, an author and social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, has conducted empirical studies showing that people who have power, suffer deficits in empathy, the ability to read emotions, and the ability to adapt behaviors to other people. In fact, power can actually change how the brain functions, according to research from Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.”
A previous TRACOM blog “Does Power Corrupt?” discusses what psychologists call the paradox of power. The same traits and characteristics that help leaders rise to power all but disappear once they’ve achieved positions of authority. According to blog author, Dr. Casey Mulqueen, research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that when people are given power, their behavior begins to mimic individuals with neurological damage. In particular, they act like patients who have damage to the specific brain area that is important for empathy and decision-making. Researchers point out that one of the main problems with authority is that it makes people less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For example, studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging others, and they spend significantly less time making direct eye contact with people who are in less powerful positions than themselves.
But of course not all leaders are power-driven nightmares in suits. Many leaders are able to do what they set-out to do, which is to be a great boss and have a positive impact on their company. Versatility is a key predictor of success and those who have high Versatility are actually 22% more able to be open with others[i] which is also a key predictor of empathy. They are also 27% better at establishing effective relationships with direct reports and are 23% better at working well within teams. And according to Dr. Casey Mulqueen, “Extensive research on leadership would indicate that self-awareness and self-monitoring are key ingredients to remaining one of the good guys. Leaders who know themselves and the impacts they have on others, and who actively, on a daily basis, pay attention to their own behavior and control themselves, are much less likely to lose their good qualities.”
[i] Managerial Success Study – Documenting the Relationships Between Versatility and Job Performance TRACOM Group https://tracom.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/SocialStyle-Research-ManagerialSuccessStudy.pdf