AFR Magazine’s annual power issue, ranking Australia’s most powerful people in politics, business and professions, always sparks something interesting to discuss.
This year, for the first time since beginning in 2000, the prime minister has been removed from the top position. Thanks to the pandemic Scott Morrison is second behind four state premiers (Daniel Andrews, Gladys Berejiklian, Mark McGowan and Anastasia Palaszuk).
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is in third place, the country’s chief health officer in fourth and Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe in fifth. Former ministerial staff Brittany Higgins is in sixth place, followed by Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, Commonwealth Bank chief Matt Comyn, opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Defense Minister Peter Dutton.
Read more: Have our governments become too powerful during COVID-19?
There are helpful lists of the most secretly powerful, most culturally powerful, most powerful in business, and in areas such as technology, education, property and consulting.
One thing this issue really lacks is a comprehensive assessment of the loss of power. Simply put, feeling powerful impairs a person’s ability to make good decisions.
Research shows that formal positions of authority are associated with cognitive and behavioral costs, along with effects on people, resources, and rewards. People who feel powerful (either in the moment or continuously) have significantly lower estimates of the likelihood of negative outcomes. They are more likely to take risks both to make gains and avoid losses.
Feeling powerful makes us more vulnerable to three behavior patterns that increase our likelihood of making bad decisions: overestimating our own point of view; dismissing the expertise of others; and fail to recognize boundaries.
Not seeing other perspectives
Taking the perspective of others is important in any leadership role. However, people who feel more powerful tend to overestimate their own point of view and underestimate the perspective of others.
This has been demonstrated in behavioral experiments by social psychologist Adam Galinsky and colleagues.
The researchers instilled a sense of greater or lesser power in the participants, asking them to either recall a time when they had power over someone else, or someone else had power over them. Others, who were told to do neither, formed a control group.
The participants were then asked to take three different tests to measure their ability to see other people’s perspectives. For example, a test requires them to identify feelings expressed by others. Those encouraged to remember to feel powerful were, on average, 6% less accurate than those in the control group. They were also less likely to detect expressions of displeasure in emails than the group made to feel less powerful.
rejecting expert advice
Feeling powerful makes us more prone to dismiss expert advice. This effect has been measured by organizational behavior researcher Leigh Tost and colleagues.
In his experiments, he used a method similar to that of Galinsky and colleagues to make participants feel more or less powerful. Then they asked the participants to guess the weights of three people or guess the amount in three jars of coins.
After the first round of guesses, participants were allowed to seek advice from those who had previously performed the task. They were told whether these consultants were “experts” (with strong performance records) or novices (with estimates that were average).
Those who were encouraged to feel less powerful were more willing to listen to the advice of experts. Those who felt more powerful were more likely to reject expert and novice advice alike.
The participants also completed a survey about their feelings during the task. The results of this element of the study showed that those who felt more powerful had a greater sense of being in competition with others. The authors conclude that rejecting expert advice is associated with a desire to “maintain their social dominance”.
not recognizing obstacles
The more powerful we feel, the more likely we are to aggressively pursue goals and fail to recognize obstacles. This is because power means that we are actually less constrained. Powerful people have more resources to do what they love, and more resources to tell others what to do.
Organizational researcher Jennifer Whitson and her colleagues measured this trend in experiments in which participants were given nine facts that might hinder achieving a goal — such as “not much money to invest” — and nine facts that might help. Like “there is high demand”.
Those who felt powerful (re-established through the method used by Galinsky and colleagues) were significantly less able to remember the constraints. The authors conclude “the powerful are more likely to act on their goals because barriers that would normally inhibit action are less psychologically present for them”.
Refusing to accept obstacles can sometimes be useful. For example, Apple founder Steve Jobs was notorious for ignoring complaints from his engineers that they could not do what they asked for. There’s the story of tossing an iPod into a fish tank to demonstrate that space was wasted to enable air pockets.
But such stubbornness is more likely to have bad consequences, as the fate of Elizabeth Holmes, who framed herself for Jobs and refused to accept his idea of a compact medical blood-testing device, didn’t work. Could go Now there is a fraud case against him.
Read more: The rise and fall of Theranos: so many lessons in one drop of blood
These draws to power are worth remembering at a time when listening to different perspectives and heeding expert advice has never been more important. Our experience with pandemics is that power is best distributed. We need leaders who understand that power corrupts, and who are humble enough to listen.