Naturally Selected

Understanding the human animal in the workplace

5 Reasons Why It Sucks to Have Power

The great power myth in modern business and politics

The 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the USA was an important political affair. The ceremony, which lasted for several days, made Obama the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, and by extension turned Obama into the most powerful figure on this planet. That may be good news for the world at large as he promised economic recovery and the end of wars.

But what is in it for him? Unfortunately not much. Unlike in many other animal species, having power does not benefit you in any way if you are a human. Among chickens, lions, deer, and gorillas it pays to be powerful because in these societies powerful males have (almost) exclusive access to females and thus all the offspring in the group are theirs – a considerable genetic advantage. Thus, there is a lot to gain by having power and therefore there is fierce competition among the males for such positions.

The picture is quite different for humans though, especially modern humans of the male type. In our highly moral societies we do not allow our leaders to benefit in any way from being in charge. It is OK if they work hard for our country, but if they step out of line, for instance, by getting romantically involved with a young intern (Monica Lewinsky), there is moral outrage and public condemnation. Thus, there is a huge power paradox in our society. On the one hand we crave to be in charge, especially men, because in the past power used to come with some reproductive benefits. Yet the benefits are no longer there. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that power is actually bad for people’s health and performance, and it turns them into less effective leaders.

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Here are five key scientific facts about power from the psychological literature that show together why having power sucks and why you should avoid power at all costs if you can.

#1. Power makes you selfish

Power increases people’s sense of entitlement so that they feel they are more deserving than others despite not having done anything special. In an interesting study by Stanford University researchers, three students worked together on a paper and one of them was randomly selected to judge the performance of the other two. This created a power difference. When the researchers gave each group a tray filled with cookies they found that the high power individual – who was not assigned as leader because of some special quality -- took more cookies and made a bigger mess when eating. Thus, power makes people selfish and this is the antithesis of good leadership.1

#2. Power makes you insensitive to other people’s emotions

There is a good deal of evidence that having power shuts of your empathy system so that you become insensitive to other people’s emotions, even their suffering. This of course makes you a bad leader almost by definition. In an experiment at Northwestern University, the researchers found that people who were asked to imagine that they were powerful were less likely to take the perspective of others in negotiation situations, resulting in an overall worse performance as leader.2 Thus, power decreases empathizing and this is not what we want to see in a good leader.

#3. Power makes you overconfident in your talents

Ordinary people start to think more highly of themselves when they are in charge. This overconfidence can result in very poor decision-making, which may affect the lives of many people. How many wars started, because the individuals in charge thought they would easily win this war (think of Iraq, Vietnam, or the Second World War). How many financial organizations have recently collapsed because the people in charge thought they could gamble with people life-savings (think Lehmann Brothers or Enron). Overconfidence is a very poor quality of leadership but it is almost inevitable when you give people power. One study at Stanford asked half of the students to write an essay in which they felt powerful and the other half an essay where they felt powerless. Then the scientists made them an offer. The experimenter could roll a dice for them and if they correctly guessed the number they would get cash.3 Alternatively, they could roll the dice themselves. Nevertheless, powerful individuals chose to roll the dice themselves, presumably thinking they could influence the outcome of this entirely random event. The lesson: Do not put your life savings in the hands of organizations that occupy a mega-luxury building with office staff in expensive suits driving very smart cars.

#4. People do not like you when you have power

Power always creates asymmetry in social relations and this is bad news for leaders. One of the strength of leadership is the power of persuasion. Yet, research on nonverbal behavior shows that when a person takes on a position of power – by moving his body forward, putting his hands on the table, or making himself big – the other person is intimidated and makes himself small. In a study we asked participants to watch a video tape of a professor and then we recorded the extent to which they mimicked the professor in terms of non-verbal behaviors such as touching their ear, smiling etc. The result was quite astonishing. The students who rated the teachers as high in authority and prestige mimicked the professor more than the students who though the professor was powerful and dominant.4 Thus, people do not learn from you when you appear to be powerful. They are simply afraid. This is what makes dominant individuals such bad teachers.

#5. When in power you die young

Finally, having power means that there are always people out there who want to take it away from you. The most risky profession in the world used to be the US presidential job, but this is now being overtaken by the function of police-officer in Iraq or Afghanistan. When you have power, people will despise you for it and undermine you in your functioning as leader. This is quite literally true. In a study of 20th century world leaders it was shown that dictators and other authoritarian leaders had significantly shorter life-spans than democratic leaders.5 Almost 85 percent of dictators had assassination attempts against their rule. Having power is bad for your health, both your physical and mental health. This same study found significant higher incidences of paranoia and other psychiatric disorders among despots than among democratic leaders. Of course, the cause and effect is not entirely clear here. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that power is bad for you. An indirect indicator of this is testosterone which is associated with a high power need. Medical research finds that men with high levels of testosterone lead more risky lifestyles, being more prone to accidents and injuries, alcohol dependence and smoking.

In light of these facts, the question should be why people desire to be in power when all the evidence suggests that having power sucks. As followers we should probably just be glad that there are people out there like your president, CEO, the captain of your sports team or the headteacher of your children who are willing to lead and get very little in return.

1. Gruenfeld et al., (2008) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

2. Galinsky et al., (2006). Psychological Science.

3. Fast et al. (2009). Psychological Science

4. Ashton-James et al. (2013). Manuscript under review

5. Ludwig (2004). Kentucky University Press.

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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