• Tuesday, May 21, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

The ups and downs of power

businessday-icon

Managers with power have more job security and see higher financial rewards. They also do their jobs more effectively, studies suggest.

On the flip side, managers lacking power also lack autonomy and control in their jobs. They tend to experience lower job satisfaction and are more susceptible to unfair treatment.

Empirical studies on the psychology of power have exploded in the 21st century. Reviewing hundreds of those studies, Sebastien Brion of the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa at the University of Navarra and Cameron Anderson have provided an overview of past findings and examined power as a process, from how it is acquired to how it is maintained and how it is lost.

Along the way, they found evidence of power’s positives and negatives, from health benefits to its corrupting influence. They also shared practical advice for managers who want to acquire and maintain power for the greater good of the organization.

Who will rise to power? Prior research identifies personal competence, a social network, demographics and physical characteristics, and personality as key predictors.

Personal competence must, of course, underlie all other factors. Power is based on control over valued resources. Managers acquire power by achieving control over valued resources and by letting others know it. In many organizations knowledge and expertise are particularly critical resources. Managers who develop useful expertise and communicate it to others become more powerful.

Research has demonstrated that your position in your social network influences your ability to access and control information, and consequently to obtain power. Building social networks across their organizations is another effective strategy for managers. Activities such as sports teams and recruiting activities can help managers make friends and allies.

Demographics and physical characteristics is a touchier area. Yes, studies say, there are stereotypes at work here. To acquire power, it helps to be perceived as more competent, and prior research has suggested that demographic characteristics such as height, race and gender may influence perceptions of competence. Recent evidence even suggests that less consciously visible characteristics such as facial structure affects how competent, dominant and powerful we perceive others to be. This is an area with few practical implications for managers, since you can’t change your demographic or most of your physical characteristics, but being aware of it can be useful.

As for personality, the traits associated with ascending power include the need or desire for power, self-monitoring, extroversion and dominance. Your communication style is also at work: Less smiling, more gazing, more touching, more gesturing and more interruptions are associated with perceptions of power. Communicating in a calm, confident and relaxed manner also is seen as powerful.

Achieving power is one thing, of course, and maintaining it is another. Brion and Anderson report that there are both internal and external forces that can help a manager maintain a position of power once he or she has acquired it.

One of the external forces is system justification, the process whereby individuals tend to defend and justify the status quo. That basic motive manifests itself in the desire to see hierarchies as legitimate, even by subordinates. Another is called attribution: Once individuals gain power in a group, others begin to credit them with the group’s achievements, perceiving them more positively than may be justified by their actual behavior or contributions. That halo effect helps entrench their position.

The internal factors are, of course, at least as powerful as the external ones. They include physiology, cognition and behavior.

Power holders have been found to have higher tolerances for pain and lower heart rates following stress-inducing tasks. Power can provide a number of health benefits, including neural, cardiovascular and immunological benefits. Related research suggests that power increases positive affect and well-being.

Power also enhances cognitive performance in goal setting and pursuit, abstract thinking and executive functioning. In long-term planning and focus, power gives individuals advantages over others competing for their positions. It also can increase optimism and creativity. Holding power even has been shown to help in golf putting and dart throwing.

Powerful individuals behave in disinhibited, action-oriented ways. For example, if a fan is blowing directly at them, they are more likely to redirect it. In addition to addressing annoyances in their environments, they also are more likely to engage with potential threats to their power. Furthermore, they tend to be less conformist and more persuasive.

The authors also report that a critical determinant of whether power holders can maintain their position is the extent to which they go beyond self-serving behavior to group-serving goals.

Sometimes, however, acquiring power is the beginning of the end. How do the mighty fall? Here too, both external and internal factors apply.

The most obvious external factor is competition. Rivals compete with power players for resources, and may place blame for failures on them. Competition is fiercer when there is a scarcity of resources.

Group dynamics also plays a major role. Research suggests, for example, that even-sized groups are less stable than odd-sized groups. Leaders of unstable groups may be in a precarious position in which even small changes in opinions may overturn existing coalitional and power hierarchies.

Individual characteristics also can undermine a manager’s power. In the same way that they can contribute to power gain, demographic characteristics such as race and sex have been shown to contribute to loss. Women and minorities are especially likely to lose power, research suggests, with the biases of others contributing to that loss.

The powerful also do themselves in, sometime through breaches in ethics. Research suggests that, once in positions of power, individuals are more likely to act in unethical ways that undermine their authority. Power seems to reduce compassion and sympathy for the suffering of others, at least in some power holders. Especially when they feel incompetent, power holders can act aggressively and treat others in abusive ways.

Decision-making biases also play a part. Power holders have been found to overestimate their own height, for example, and to underestimate the amount of time a project will take. If they become overconfident, those with power may engage in excessive risk-taking and ignore useful advice from others. Power holders also may surround themselves with flatterers and overestimate the extent to which others in their organization are allied with them.

Upon reviewing the research, managers who want to reap the benefits of power, from better health to better focus, should stay vigilant against potential power traps such as ethical violations or insensitive behavior. Power put to good use helps advance group goals, for the benefit of all.