Why Powerful Men Let Lust Ruin Their Careers

Sexual harassment at the office
An old Yiddish saying in Portnoy's Complaint – Phillip Roth's lewd classic – describes the misguided behavior of all too many powerful men: Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd, which means "When the prick stands up, the brains get buried in the ground." From recent academic research and press reports, it's clear that power can poison even the most intelligent and well-meaning people when they take influential positions. Scholars including UC Berkeley's Dacher Keltner and Stanford's Deborah Gruenfeld show that symptoms of power poisoning (for both sexes) include focusing more on your own needs and wants and less on the needs and reactions of others, having less empathy for others, acting like the rules don't apply to you, and exhibiting less impulse control (see this troubling piece by Keltner). The relentless parade of sex scandals involving influential men demonstrate that, for male leaders, such power poisoning all too often manifests in "penis poisoning": their pricks stand up and, as the Yiddish saying predicts, they do inane things that damage themselves, their families, and their organizations.

You know the list: from Bill Clinton's White House antics with Monica Lewinsky to Mark Hurd's non-business dinners with an attractive young colleague.

See our rogue's gallery of famous examples: Sex, Lies and Stupidity: Great Men Who Self-Destructed.

Anyone who tells you that they have an instant and sure-fire cure for this affliction is living in a fool's paradise. Yet there are plenty of influential people who display few if any symptoms of power poisoning and, in specific, many influential men who are not plagued with penis poisoning. That implies there are steps men and their organizations can take to reduce the incidence and severity of such impulsive and often destructive behavior. I wrote quite a bit about how people can avoid power poisoning in my last book, The No Asshole Rule, and in my new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss. Because penis poisoning is a particular subset of this malady, many of the lessons in those books can be applied to this challenge. If you're a male leader, don't fool yourself: it could happen to you. Here are three ways to avoid the very worst kind of bad-boss behavior:

As with other forms of power poisoning, most men in power probably believe they are immune to penis poisoning. Most of us human beings suffer from what researchers call "self-enhancement bias." Just as over 80 percent of motorists believe they are "above average" drivers, most men in power believe they are "better than the rest" and that this is a problem only suffered by other, obviously inferior human brings. I don't know what Bill Clinton was thinking when he was running for president in 1992, but I am willing to bet that – regardless of what he might have done in the past – if you told him the darkest days of his presidency would occur because his brains got buried in the ground and he had oral sex with an intern in the White House, he would have said you were out of your mind. Yet, there he was, a few years later, with Monica kneeling before him. So, the first rule here is that every male boss should assume that he is at risk, regardless of past behavior, religious beliefs, and any other signs of inner goodness.

In particular, although the quantitative evidence is indirect, there is reason to believe that leaders should be aware they are at special risk of penis poisoning during periods when things are going JUST GREAT. When the company or team they lead is performing at an all time high and the praise is rolling in from all corners, the feeling that one is a powerful man grows, and impulse control may plummet to all-time lows. Although I can't know Mark Hurd's prior experience with this malady, it isn't surprising that he: seemed oblivious to how it looked for a married guy to be having private dinners with an attractive younger woman (especially when there was apparently no compelling business purpose); fudged his expenses a bit in apparent cover-up; and may have gotten carried away with his flirtations during a period when the praise was flowing and HP's earnings and stock price where skyrocketing.

A key lesson for every leader is that the best way to fight penis poisoning, and a host of related sins suffered by both men and women in power, is to surround yourself with people whom you encourage and reward for bringing you down a notch when required. I wonder about the people who surround Tiger Woods and helped him with all those liaisons. Was there anyone who had the courage – or the power – to remind Tiger what a dumb career move these encounters were? And I wonder if anyone around the tough and (reportedly) sometimes rough Mark Hurd made any effort to tell him that he was playing with fire. Unfortunately, there are too many incentives for subordinates to kiss-up to their superiors. Research suggests that delivering bad news about anything to your boss can lead him (or her) to like you less – and research on flattery suggests that telling your boss how wonderful he or she is (whether it's true or not) is a good career move for most of us. These facts of human interaction, along with other maladies suffered by people in power, mean that bosses must force themselves to reward and promote people who have the courage to tell them when their antics are harming their reputations, distracting them from crucial responsibilities, and putting the financial and emotional well-being of others at risk.

I first heard this bit of practical advice from an experienced labor lawyer. When it comes to romantic and sexual advances involving those who have less power than you, never make the first move. Unwanted advances – even when the target politely rebuffs them and the more powerful party accepts this in a civilized way – can change the dynamics of the working relationship. The person who rejects your advances may be left feeling vulnerable. He or she may have good reason to worry that chances of getting a raise or promotion – or of keeping an account or getting a good grade – have been compromised. The object of your affections may also cave in to your initial requests against his or her better judgment, and then surprise (and anger) you by rejecting you, or worse yet, turning against you. I'm not arguing that cupid should be killed in every workplace. Workplace romances can turn out wonderfully; Southwest Airlines – listed as LUV on the New York Stock exchange – is renowned for encouraging romances to bloom. Their website's list of "fun facts" indicates that 1,164 married couples work for the airline. But if you have more power, it's in your best interest to let the other person make the first move. And even then, there are plenty of risks.

It isn't easy being a human being; we aren't machines and it isn't a simple thing to shut down our love or lust for others. The first step is to accept your humanity, and the second is to surround yourself with people you trust – and will reward rather than punish – to help you stifle your inner creep when he starts to rear his ugly head.

Robert I. Sutton is a professor of Management Science & Engineering at Stanford University. His books on management include Good Boss, Bad Boss, The No Asshole Rule and The Knowing-Doing Gap (co-written with Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Read More:

Sex, Lies and Stupidity: Great Men Who Self-Destructed

Office Romances: The Ultimate Guide

All Things BNET on Mark Hurd

Poll: Have You Been Negatively Affected by Co-Workers' Office Romances?