It's About Power: Explaining Brett Favre -- and Your Lousy Boss

Last Updated Oct 22, 2010 5:28 PM EDT

Millions of Americans will watch the NFL this Sunday. I'll be one of them, checking on the Eagles while I'm folding laundry.

But I can't get Brett Favre out of my head.

A couple of weeks ago news surfaced that Favre, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, harassed a New York Jets sideline reporter when he played there in 2008 by sending lewd texts and photos to her. The allegations have not been confirmed - nor has Favre denied them.

Is there any explanation for Favre? We're all asking: How stupid can a guy be? Which is exactly what we thought about Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger, Eliot Spitzer and Rod Blagojevich. I look at my son, age 4, playing trains on the floor, and I wonder: If he grows up to be able to throw a tight spiral 80 yards, hold political office, or be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, will I need to have a conversation with him about not circulating pictures of his privates?

But according to Adam Galinsky, Ph.D., this kind of behavior from powerful people isn't surprising. Galinsky (above) is a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, and he studies how power affects the way people think. Turns out power transforms people's psychological processes, often in ugly ways. Spectacular blow-ups by people in positions of influence, Galinsky says, are "exactly what you would expect based on the scientific research on power." His work sheds some light on these disturbing situations - in fact, on any warped boss whose myopia has ever been a torment to his underlings. He explains more here:

Q: So how does power work on the brain?
A: The first thing it does, power makes people more focused on their own desires. You can see that with Brett Favre clearly in this case. Part of the reason for that has to do with the definition of power. When I have power, I am less dependent on other people to meet my needs. When I lack power, I am more dependent on others. Therefore, when I have power, I'm more focused on myself and less focused on other people.

Research has shown this over and over again, powerful people show less compassion, they show less perspective-taking, and they show a greater focus on their own thoughts and feelings relative to other people's thoughts and feelings.

Q: How do you demonstrate this?
A: In one study I did, we asked people to draw a capital letter E on their forehead. There are two ways you can draw it. You can draw it as an E to yourself, but it's backwards to anyone looking at it. The other way you can draw it is so it's backwards to yourself, but it would look like an E to anyone looking at it. People who were randomly put in high-powered positions were three times more likely to draw an E from a self-focused perspective.

In another study, people looked at a series of photographs and were asked to detect the emotion the person in the photo was experiencing. The high-powered people made more errors. They paid less attention to the emotional states of other people.

Q: These men who do these things seem like they're from a different planet. Average people like me just don't get it. How could they be so dumb?
A: Two more things to know about power: People feel psychologically invisible when they have power. They're so focused on their own needs at that moment in time, as they chase after something, they're not aware that their chasing could ever be exposed.

Second, power is like a strong cologne. It affects the wearer of it, and it affects the people close to that person, but it doesn't affect people at a distance. Clearly, in the Brett Favre case, there are people helping him do this. People are getting him numbers. You saw that with LeBron James this summer. No one around him was saying, "You know, dude, I think it's a really bad idea for you to go on TV for an hour, crush the spirit of an entire city and look like an ass." People around the person of power are also affected by that cologne.

Q: So people who find themselves in a position of power, do they need special training?
A: Absolutely. Power reduces perspective-taking, but perspective-taking is one of the most important characteristics in the capacity to handle human relationships. What we need to do is make people in power feel more accountable. In the business world, there's an easy way to do that: You create stronger boards of directors to make CEOs accountable. One of the problems right now in corporate America is we have CEOs who have too much say in picking the boards, and the boards tend to be sycophantic grovelers of the CEO and don't hold them accountable. There's some evidence, for example, that if Obama loses the House or the Senate, he might be a better president, because he now has to take the perspective of the other party.

There has to be something in your daily moments that leads you to feel accountable to other people. There is a story that Brett Favre had his own locker room, separate from his teammates. In sports, don't treat anyone differently than anyone else. Every player has a locker in the same place.

Q: Are powerful people better in the executive suite or on the football field?
A: Power has lots of wonderful characteristics. The powerful are more optimistic. The powerful see choice and possibilities, where no one sees choice. The powerful have a greater capacity to make the impossible possible. They're more likely to see the big picture. In my research, I'm trying to get at how you take the best in power, that optimism and action, without the downside of power, the egocentric self-focus and concern with one's own desires.

Q: Of all the high-profile celebrity blow-ups recently, do any of them surprise you?
A: They're all in the same category to me. There's no big difference between them. I will say that Tiger Woods didn't break any laws. The women who were with him chose to be with him. If it's true that Brett Favre sent pictures of himself, by definition that's a horrendous form of harassment.


More on MoneyWatch.com:
5 Things NOT to Say to Your Kids About Money

13 Tips for Holiday Prep Now

Feed a Family of 4 on $10 a Day
Delight Your Friends: Your Handwriting and 44 Cents

The Ethics of Maternity Leave
  • Sarah Butler

Comments

Market Data

Market News

Stock Watchlist