How Power Impacts the (Even Slightly) Powerful

The British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes wrote a book about the famous Battle of Agincourt from a unique perspective: His ancestors were leaders on both sides in the battle, as they had been in the wars between England and France over four centuries.

His great-times-30-grandfather commanded the first army to invade the other side, for French Normandy in 1066. At one point in the Battle of Hastings, Fiennes’ greats-grandpa thought the English were about to win, and advised his king to retreat. “William ignored him, carried on the fight and the Normans successfully invaded England,” Fiennes writes. Fiennes explores 387 years of invasions back and forth, kings from each side sitting on the other’s throne, intrigue, slaughters of entire towns, and the murders or war deaths of powerful people, among them many of Fiennes’ relatives.

Despite all that, by 1450 all but one town were back under the control of their respective countries. “If only that bastard, William the Conqueror, had listened to my cousin Eustace’s advice and had retreated back to his ships, none of what followed need have happened,” Fiennes comments to close his narrative.[1] All those nobles fighting for power caused centuries of desperate misery and accomplished… exactly nothing.

After a mere 30 years in the working world, I can’t help but see parallels to office politics. Turf wars, ideological battles, self-righteousness, and arrogance all too often drive management actions. By various means I have been begging managers to give up much of their hard-won organizational power because it will improve performance while making workers and themselves happier. For the most part, I have failed.

In recent years I have come to suspect the reasons are so fundamental to being human, even managers who agree with empowerment find it difficult to enact. Then I came across a chapter written for the Annual Review of Psychology in 2017 by Ana Guinote. Working in the Leadership Knowledge Center at University College London, she is an experimental psychologist who has specialized in the topic of social power.[2]

Her lengthy review of the scientific literature makes clear that having social power changes the way people behave, in that order. I’m talking about traits that power creates in people, more reliably than any specific trait puts people in power. Guinote emphasizes at two places that research has found no individual traits that explain leadership behaviors. (Yet more reason for my recent rant against learning about leadership by reading about individual leaders.)

Guinote writes, “experimental work has shown that power changes people, and that the mere fact of having power enhances flexibility, reliance on experiential information, and ability to think abstractly into the future.” Power increases creativity and engagement in creative processes. Women “primed” briefly to feel more powerful did better at math (with observable changes in brain activity) and at visual tasks, she says. A different journal article said studies with males and females found no difference in ability to read emotions and mental states by gender, but power reduced that sensitivity in both.[3]

In a range of settings, Guinote writes, “powerful people use more plural (we) than singular (I) pronouns, and tend to use less disclaimers (e.g., “I don’t really know”), hesitations, hedges (“sort of, maybe”), tag questions (“it is very cold out today, isn’t it”), and intensifiers.” (For readability I have removed sources from all quotes.) Also, “Powerful people speak their minds, speak first, and speak more than others. They also speak more loudly and interrupt others more often.”

Indeed, gaining power boosts confidence, making the person less likely to take and heed advice and more likely to self-validate their thoughts and go by gut instincts. These qualities may be useful when fast decisions are required within the person’s area of expertise, like a captain on a battlefield or soccer pitch. But they harm decision quality when quick decisions aren’t required, because on average groups make better decisions than individuals. Guinote points out people with organizational power “spend up to two thirds of their time in communication with subordinates,” so the inability to listen actively to others raises serious concerns about how well that time is used.

Power creates a sense of control even outside the person’s power area, causing higher optimism and action-orientation, again a mixed blessing depending on the situation. More powerful people have a greater sense of independence, whereas the less powerful “resort to relationships as a means to enhance control, are more communal and have an interdependent self-construct.” This directly relates to the difficulty of getting managers to accede to a group’s preference. The reason isn’t as simple as the manager not wanting to seem weak.

Power raises self-esteem, causing inflated self-ratings of management skills (and physical height!). I know from personal experience this reduces the “coachability” of upper managers, because they think they have nothing to learn about management except maybe from peers and superiors. Two other psychologists add, “studies have revealed that with greater power, individuals tend to be more approach- or action-oriented, more risk-seeking, less averse to potential losses, and more attentive to goal-relevant information.”[4]

These results occur even at subconscious levels and when experimentally manipulated—that is, when people are randomly assigned to high or low-power groups and, often, don’t experience power over anyone. A journal article reported on a study in which people were randomly assigned to write for five minutes about times they had power over others; or when someone had power over them; or an unrelated topic.[5] This exercise has been used in many studies to producing measurable changes in people. In this case, neural behavior in subjects’ right hands was measured as they watched videos of a hand squeezing a rubber ball. Those in the high-power state showed less potential motor response, meaning their hands did not react as much to the actions of others. The unrelated-to-power writers fell between the high and low groups. Based on the result, the authors say “the default effect of high power appears to be reduced interpersonal sensitivity.” This aligns with Guinote’s summary, but the word “default” indicates the effect can be overcome, which may be why some studies have shown contradictory results.

In another set of studies, people were hooked up to a machine that measures the cardiovascular system.[6] They were randomly assigned to a high- or low-power condition and primed the same way as the previous study, after which they had to give a short speech. In the second study, participants were told they were the best option (high power) or not (low power) for a partner in a negotiation game they then played. The high-power people reacted to the speech or negotiation by pumping more blood with less capillary resistance, as if responding to a challenge. The low-power people responded the opposite way, as if facing a threat. (If you think you’re going to get bitten by a lion, lower blood flow decreases the chances of bleeding out.) More generally, the authors surmised after reading through previous studies: “In addition to direct instrumental benefits, possessing power has great psychological and physical advantages as it enhances cognitive performance (creativity, abstract thinking, goal setting, and executive functioning) and improves psychological and physical well-being.”

By some definitions, social power is all about the tangible perks: Many researchers define it as controlling more resources, whether personal, political, or corporate. That’s reason enough for many people to want it. We have now seen many subtler benefits, and that humans are built to respond in particular ways to the slightest hint of having power. No wonder Agile coaches and others arguing for managers to give up their power for the good of workers, customers, and the company face an up-hill… up-mountain battle.

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[1] Fiennes, R. (2015), Agincourt: The Fight for France, Pegasus Books: New York.

[2] Ana Guinote, “How Power Affects People: Activating, Wanting, and Goal Seeking,” Annual Review of Psychology 68, no. 1 (January 3, 2017): 353–81, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044153.

[3] M. D. Rutherford, “The Effect of Social Role on Theory of Mind Reasoning,” British Journal of Psychology 95, no. 1 (February 2004): 91–103, https://doi.org/10.1348/000712604322779488.

[4] Joe C. Magee and Pamela K. Smith, “The Social Distance Theory of Power,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 17, no. 2 (May 2013): 158–86, https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868312472732.

[5] Jeremy Hogeveen, Michael Inzlicht, and Sukhvinder S. Obhi, “Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others.,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 2 (2014): 755–62, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033477.

[6] Daan Scheepers et al., “Social Power Makes the Heart Work More Efficiently: Evidence from Cardiovascular Markers of Challenge and Threat,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 371–74, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.06.014.

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