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Does Power Corrupt?

You’re all familiar with the old adage that nice guys finish last. Like many common sayings that automatically roll off our tongues, it is not true. Nice people do just fine, thank you. However, as new research shows, it isn’t all good news for the considerate and honest people of the world either. In fact, we might be able to edit the proverb to read, “At the last, nice guys are finished.”

An article by Jonah Lehrer in the Wall Street Journal (August 14-15, 2010) discusses what psychologists call the paradox of power. The same traits and characteristics that help leaders rise to power all but disappear once they’ve achieved positions of authority. Many people are surprised to learn that the vast majority of those who attain leadership roles are, in fact, not ruthless subscribers to Machiavellianism. Instead, far and above it is the people who are perceived as most considerate and sociable who become respected leaders. This makes intuitive sense, and as TRACOM knows from our own research, people give respect and support to leaders who practice high Versatility. The problem is, once these people become leaders, their good traits often fly out the corner office window.

Recent research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that when people are given power, their behavior begins to mimic individuals with neurological damage. In particular, they act like patients who have damage to the specific brain area that is important for empathy and decision-making. Researchers point out that one of the main problems with authority is that it makes people less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For example, studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging others, and they spend significantly less time making direct eye contact with people who are in less powerful positions than themselves.

Of course, power doesn’t turn everyone into merciless jerks. Some leaders are able to maintain and even enhance the good qualities that brought them authority. Extensive research on leadership would indicate that self-awareness and self-monitoring are key ingredients to remaining one of the good guys. Leaders who know themselves and the impacts they have on others, and who actively, on a daily basis, pay attention to their own behavior and control themselves, are much less likely to lose their good qualities.

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