How power changes the CEO brain

Whether you're a CEO or just another middle manager with partial authority, power can change how you think a...

Posted: Sep 4, 2018 10:13 AM
Updated: Sep 4, 2018 10:13 AM

Whether you're a CEO or just another middle manager with partial authority, power can change how you think and behave.

That's what a host of neuroscience studies suggest anyway.

Through varying experiments by social psychologists and others, they found that people who are primed to feel powerful become more goal-oriented and think more abstractly. They become more self-oriented and less likely to see things from others' perspectives.

For instance, in one experiment participants were asked to draw an "E" on their forehead. Those in the high-power group were more likely to draw the "E" from their own perspective such that it appeared backwards to anyone looking at them. Those in the low-power group tended to intentionally draw the "E" in reverse, so that others seeing them would read it as an "E."

People with power may also start to be less empathetic. One experiment found that participants in the high-power group made more errors in judging the emotional expressions of others than those in the low-power group. Another study found those with power are more likely to objectify subordinates in terms of how useful they might be in attaining a goal.

Other research has found that those with power are less likely to feel social constraints on their behavior, or to recall potential obstacles standing between them and their goals. And they tend to be more optimistic about risky decisions.

Any of these changes can be useful on the job, noted Jennifer Lauren Ray, a researcher at the NeuroLeadership Institute, which synthesizes neuroscience findings and helps business leaders solve organizational problems.

After all, those who have power are paid to think about the big picture, drive teams to reach ambitious goals and be inspiring along the way. And, of course, being willing to buck convention sometimes can set you apart from the competition.

But left unchecked, such behaviors and perspectives can make you more prone to being a jerk, frankly. Or worse, they may make you more prone to doing something illegal, unethical or immoral.

The NeuroLeadership Institute even posits that the cognitive effects of power could help explain incidents of corporate greed and sexual harassment.

How the effects of power can manifest

Power can accentuate your general tendencies, good or bad, said social psychologist Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School.

So on the upside, if you were born compassionate, "the odds are higher you'll be compassionate if you gain power," said Galinksy, one of the leading researchers on the effects of power.

A CEO with compassion, for example, might approach the question of layoffs differently than a CEO who is laser-focused on goals and the company's near-term desire to cut costs.

Galinsky recalled one CEO at a company he consulted with during the economic downturn. Rather than laying people off, the CEO opted to furlough workers at reduced pay for three months. That would be easier on the employees, and the CEO figured it also would be better for business, since layoffs could have put the company at a disadvantage when things picked up.

Generally speaking, whether the effects of power prove positive or negative depend on how they're expressed. For instance, it's reasonable to value someone for their skill set when you're trying to find the right employee for a given project. It's wrong, however, to objectify a subordinate for their sexual attractiveness to satisfy your personal desires.

Interestingly, some studies suggest the more negative influences of power are more likely to be triggered when someone doesn't feel they're being respected, Galinsky noted.

To the extent pay is perceived as a measure of respect, then the findings of one recent study might be worth noting in this context. Researchers compared CEOs' pay to their peer group average, firm performance and the instances of layoffs at their companies.

They found that CEOs who are underpaid relative to their peers in a given year are more likely to engage in layoffs the next year than CEOs who are paid more than their peers.

Changes aren't set in stone

How power affects any given person is not predetermined.

"It's how you experience the power you get. You could not have a lot of power, but feel very powerful and vice versa," Galinsky said.

The effects, for instance, could be outsized or very minimal when you move from a position of zero power to leading a small team.

And ditto for a CEO who is more likely to "chronically exist in a state of power," as Ray puts it.

A lot also will depend on what internal and external checks you have on your power -- ranging from your own sense of humility to a spouse who isn't having it to a trusted advisor or board of directors who gives you honest feedback.

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