Blog: Leadership and the Paradox of Power

Learning & Development

Leadership and the Paradox of Power

Leaders must recognize the need for empathy in effectively managing their teams and organizations
Leadership and the Paradox of Power

‘With great power comes great responsibility’ – Stan Lee.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Hollywood can instantly identify the source of this quote, made popular by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in the runaway hit, Spiderman. Here’s a modification to the above line, a statement that was proven some years ago by a group of social scientists led by Professor Adam Galinsky (now with Columbia Business School): With a dose of power, comes a deficit of empathy. 

Power, Perspective-Taking and Empathy

Through controlled experiments, Galinsky and his team set out to explore the connection between power and empathy. Among their subjects, some were ‘primed’ for high power and others for low. Those primed for low power were better inclined to incorporate another person’s perspective (that is, to understand other people’s mental states). However, the high-power individuals were less likely to demonstrate perspective-taking, that is, conforming to others’ point of view. The scientists also went on to discover that power can inhibit not just perspective-taking, but empathy too (the capacity to recognize another person’s emotional state). Thus, power seemed to be correlated to and perhaps even caused a deficit of empathy.

Competing Competencies

Leaders and people managers the world over are endowed with varying degrees of authority. They are expected to take quick decisions, deliver results to customers and shareholders and through their actions, drive change inside and outside of organizations or within the departments they lead. A premium is placed on two crucial competencies: action-orientation and delivery of results.

However, this is just half the story. Let’s not forget that, along with personal success, most managers are responsible for leading and setting up their team members for success too. Along with the what, mature organizations pay equal attention to the how. The what deals with getting things done, that is, focusing on results. The how deals with the methodology the leader adopts to accomplish her goals. Here, characteristics like the ability to listen well, to communicate clearly, to reach out and collaborate, rally the support of team members and synergize to create opportunities are valued as much as the orientation to accomplish tasks.

Thus, managers are empowered to take action to achieve the results that are important for their respective departments and organizations. However, power also gives birth to a unique paradox.

The Paradox of Power

As Galinsky and his team discovered, power bestowed upon leaders automatically (and perhaps subconsciously) causes an unintended side-effect — a reduced perspective-taking ability. The high power orientation of leaders helps them to get things done, but this same affinity to power is also likely to result in reduced empathy. This is a big handicap for people managers who handle teams of all sizes.

Additionally, there’s the all-important point of engagement. People managers have been laboring for years to keep their teams engaged. Year after year, engagement surveys offer bleak snapshots of engagement ratios riding a downward trend in many organizations across the world, more so in India.

In their quest to quickly ‘action’ things, leaders may inadvertently operate in command-and-control mode. Unfortunately, control produces compliance, not engagement. True motivation and engagement is nearly impossible to achieve in an environment of pure control, but may be achieved in a workplace that nurtures autonomy. And a culture of autonomy is the result of managers placing sufficient trust on their team members to achieve desired results.

Building your empathy muscles

According to one study, over 72% of the workforce in India is under 35 years of age, that is, the millennial generation. It is already apparent to several leaders today that this generation is opinionated, outspoken and has a point of view on all matters that may or may not concern them. It is also a generation that values autonomy. Members of this cohort place a premium on purpose and strive to derive meaning from their everyday work (disclaimer – the author of this essay is a millennial).

Leaders across multiple generations may choose to ignore this reality and continue to lead in ways that may have worked for them in the past. Or they may sit up, take notice and drive initiatives that emphasize the need for empathy, autonomy, mastery and purpose (The last three characteristics make up the Self-Determination Theory of motivation, made popular by Daniel Pink’s bestselling book, Drive).

Those who choose the latter, and seriously incorporate the ‘softer’ behavioural aspects into their leadership development and coaching programs may well send out a strong signal within their organizations — the how matters as much as the what. A long-term strategy that holistically incorporates these aspects into workplace culture will not only fulfill Uncle Ben’s vision of responsible utilization of power, but also likely result in greater engagement, reduced attrition, and a more humane workplace.

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Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership, #HRInsights

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