Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is the power trip inevitable?

It is easy to spot someone on a power trip.

But is this a natural inevitability, a by-product, of people with authority?

Unfortunately, the research says "yes."

The power trip is alive and well...in all of us. We are after all, human. And with power, people can exhibit power trip behaviors.

In an article by Jonah Lehrer for the Wall Street Journal, he says
"Contrary to the Machiavellian cliché, nice people are more likely to rise to power. Then something strange happens: Authority atrophies the very talents that got them there."

It does in fact pose a paradox.

Lehrer goes on to say that "According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking."

I guess this is why we have so many un-empathetic bosses that think they are too important to bother with the minions. But do you have to be a jerk if you are in power?

I don't think so.

However, I know that it takes hard work to overcome some of these natural tendencies. Take it from a nice person who has been on a few power trips in her day. I am a living testament to this study.

I remember one time when I was on one of my power trips. I had been travelling incessantly and my itinerary got messed up and when they finally put me on the right flight, I didn't get upgraded. I was furious. I was furious at everyone and anyone. I remember being rude to the airline folks (I mean how could they not upgrade me? Didn't they know I travelled every week with their airline?) and then getting on the phone and giving my assistant a piece of my mind. Looking back, I remember my internal dialogue sounding a bit like "How dare they? Don't they know how busy I am? Don't they know who they are dealing with?" My ego was bruised.

I believe that power has a way of engaging our egos and making us create an illusion of superiority that comes with authority. This is why humility is one of the most powerful attributes that leaders need to nourish.

A humble leader stays connected and empathetic. A humble leader is never "above" the standards set for the masses. A humble leader can get the back seat of a flight (by the bathroom) and feel grateful to be there. Humble leaders project power but aren't on a power trip.

There is a fundamental difference of projecting power and being overtaken by power. Projecting power is critical to achieve a degree of confidence by those following you, but being humble and keeping your ego in check is critical for long term success as a leader.

So how do you know when you're on a power trip and have lost touch with humility?

1. You believe you are entitled to certain standards and/or perks.
2. You hear your internal voice say things like "don't they know who they are dealing with?"
3. You don't meet with just anybody: you consider status first before ideas.
4. You get upset easily.
5. You constantly measure yourself against others.

If you can relate to any of these you may be on a power trip. Don't fret, you're not alone. But you can do something about it to become a better leader. Take these important steps to bring you back to humility:

Reconnect with the "niceness" that got you into that position of authority in the first place
Watch your judgments of others
Accept your own faults and admit blame
Be curious about people and ideas, regardless of status
Get in touch with the reality of the masses
Say no to the power trip and don't let your ego derail you.

Remember to lead effectively, you don't have to be a jerk. In fact, succumbing to the power trip will not only diminish your impact, it will rob you of long term success.

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