The Most Reliable Ways to Become a Workplace Jerk – the Power Paradox

My last post focused on “asshole poisoning,” on how acting nasty is a contagious disease that you catch from others people. I warned that even the nicest people can turn mean when they are surrounded by a bunch of mean-spirited creeps. And I advised that one of the best ways to avoid acting like an asshole it to leave workplaces that are infested with these creeps, or better yet, to avoid joining them in the first place.

This post focuses on a second well-documented cause of asshole poisoning: POWER. The belief that power turns people into selfish jerks has been around a long time. And it turns out that this isn’t just a myth, a growing body of research – notably by Professors Dachner Keltner at UC Berkeley and Deborah Gruenfeld at Stanford – documents that three things happen when people are put in a position of power over others:

1. They focus more on satisfying their own needs 2. They focus less on the needs and behaviors of their underlings 3. They act like “the rules” that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them.

I’ve written about this research in The No Asshole Rule and blogged about it several times, including here and here. My favorite experiment – by Keltner and Gruenfled – shows that giving people just a little more power than their colleagues causes them to eat more cookies, to chew with their mouths open, and to leave more crumbs.

I especially recommend this wonderful essay on “The Power Paradox” (you can get it online free) by Keltner in a magazine called The Greater Good. Keltner rejects the notion (in contrast to other researchers) that acting like selfish bully helps people get power. He argues, based on peer-reviewed studies, that people who are more cooperative and selfless are most likely to be granted positions of power by their peers. But, once they get power, they turn into selfish jerks.

In fact, Keltner argues it is worse than that, as he cites studies that show giving people power leads them to process information in more shallow ways and to consistently make worse decisions. In short, he argues that – even if you were a nice and smart person before getting power – odds are that lording over others will turn you into a selfish, inconsiderate, and less intelligent jerk! Keltner makes an evidence-based argument, which is based especially on a host of controlled experiments.

I have two reactions this research. My first reaction is that his findings do describe what happens to many people that I’ve know and studied. That they ring true. This means that, if you want to avoid becoming a jerk, staying out of positions of power is one solution.

My second reaction, however, is that this isn’t a very useful suggestion, as we need competent leaders in business, nonprofits, and government. And they aren’t all jerks.

A few CEOs I’ve met over the years come to mind immediately, A.G. Lafley at Procter & Gamble, James Hackett at Steelcase, and John Chambers at Cisco. I’ve also heard consistently great reports about at Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, who is known for her civility and wisdom. The upshot is that giving people power OFTEN turns them into jerks, but not always.

This raises a question for readers of this blog: What can a leader do to avoid becoming a selfish jerk? I’d love to hear your thoughts.