Why your boss may be mad with power


(MoneyWatch) Have you ever known a perfectly nice person who turned into a monster when they got that promotion to manager? Turns out there may be a good explanation for that.

Science Daily cites a new study showing that people with power tend to see things as more black and white, and are therefore willing to enforce harsher punishments. The researchers, Scott Wiltermuth of the USC Marshall School of Business and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, set up an experiment where some students were given positions of power and others were not. Those in the "power" positions were far more likely to see things in stark, dualistic terms.

When facing a situation where a mistake had been made, the people in power were quick to attribute it to a clear cause and unlikely to say it depended on other factors. Wiltermuth says:

We found the same phenomenon when we made other people feel powerful, and we also found the resulting clarity led people to punish questionable behavior more severely. That link between power and more severe punishment could cause a huge problem for managers. What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other people.

Their finding clarifies something I've observed in my own career: I now understand why micro-managers micro-manage. They gain power and suddenly they see things as black or white, right or wrong. And if their way is the right way to do something, by definition all other ways are the wrong way to do it. And since wrong is bad, they must stop their employees from doing bad. And the only way to do this is to make sure everything is done the right way, which must by definition be the way the boss would have done it himself.

I'm not sure if Wiltermuth and Flynn would agree that that is where their study leads, but it's something I've seen in practice. People have a hard time distinguishing between bad and different. They also have difficulty changing their minds, even when additional information is presented. Or they refuse to look at additional information.

For instance, on Wednesday I wrote about a person who wasaccused of wrongdoing at work while never even being asked to give her side of the story. That looks an awful lot like someone quickly making a decision and refusing to consider that there was more to the story.

Of course, one of the things that is necessary in a leadership role is the ability to make a decision and stick to it. Waffling doesn't get things done. And getting complete information on any decision is nearly impossible. (Tell me, just how do you know that your best option for lunch was that cheeseburger?) Leaders need to make decisions and stick to them.

So it's a balancing act. If you're a manager, this study says you may be prone to make hard-line decisions. My advice is to take that into consideration. Set a goal for yourself that you will consider input from people every day before you act. Be careful in your hiring and surround yourself with good people who can help you make good choices -- and then listen to them.

Most of all, don't let that power go straight to your head.