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Human Kind: how to handle Power?

  • 10 November 2020
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Let’s look at Rutger Bregman’s inspiring book Human Kind - A Hopeful History once more. This book offers more proof for the positive as a basis for a more positive, productive culture at work. In my earlier post, we saw how your team, if they hold negative beliefs, will not be as creative and productive as possible. 

Bregman offers ample proof of the opposite: the majority of people is virtuous and willing to help. Most people are friendly and supportive and prefer kind and wise leaders. So, how did the bullies arrive at work? Why do we also see toxic workplace cultures? Where are the positive leaders and why aren’t there more?

The Power Paradox

Power-expert Dachter Keltner did some interesting experiments at a summer camp - trying to apply Machiavelli’s advice to grab and hold on to power. In the mini-society of camp, however, those who lied and cheated to get more control and power were soon excluded by the group. 

People do not appreciate this kind of behavior: other research shows that people choose the kindest people to become their leaders! This has been happening since prehistoric times - kind and caring people were elected as leaders. Bullies were corrected by the group.
This changed when people settled down thanks to agriculture that provided a stable flow of food and the option to gather possessions. From that time on, leadership became more heriditary and an elite of wealthy families ensued until the Enlightenment with its rationality leaded societies to elections, human rights and power to the people, too.
Today, people still prefer kind and honest leaders. You cannot take leadership over a group, but people grant it to you if they think you qualify.

But, as researched, once you have power you get away with egotistic, manipulative behavior. People tolerate this as a feature of those in power. Lots of research has shown that powerful leaders are more impulsive, egotistic, arrogant, narcissistic and rude. They don’t listen well to others, they don’t blush as much as others do (they are more shameless). They’re less susceptible to negative feedback: it’s not them - it’s the others that are wrong and stupid!

Distorted vision and interactions

Power distorts your vision and leaders more often have negative views about others: they are lazy and not to be trusted. Thus, the others need to be checked and controlled. And when you treat people as if they’re stupid, unreliable and untrustworthy - they start to feel more uncertain. In short, leaders feel smarter than they really are and followers treated badly tend to feel dumber than they really are.

This is the power paradox: people choose the kindest and wisest as their leaders - but once these leaders have power they can change and they are often not so kind anymore.

Their followers also change their perceptions and behaviors around these leaders. Once you have accepted a leader and you are part of a group, you’d like to belong their and be safe. Hence, you want to fit in. Here’s the power of group and organizational culture.
That’s why people find it hard to say no to leaders of our own team, group or tribe - even when they lead us in the wrong direction or push us to behave unethically.

Even when it’s not wrong or unethical it may be harmful for results if you don’t speak up and leaders get away with nonsense. Bregman quotes an experiment by the renowned Dan Ariely. Instead of a coherent lecture, he gave his students “verbal porridge” with difficult statements and definitions that didn’t make sense. No one really understood, but no one wanted to admit that Ariely’s lecture was bogus. So, most students nodded. Every student looking around, seeing the others writing and nodding, thought that he or she was the only stupid one who didn’t understand the lecture.

The power of questions

This is group behavior: it’s culture in full swing. We copy each other all the time, even unaware. We are group animals who want approval and bonding - we don’t want to look bad and stupid. We want to be like the others. This can go as far as following the leader and the group in behaviors that you individually disapprove of  - but you don’t want to be excluded. Human beings can choose stupidity over shame or discomfort.

Not speaking up, not asking the question, not disrupting the group pattern can be harmful for the whole group. In a team, it can lower performance and innovation if no-one questions the status quo or “the truth”. Silence is never a sign of an engaged, energetic, learning team.

That’s why it’s important to develop a culture where it is normal and appreciated (and copied!) to ask many questions, to welcome and answer questions together, to reflect. Such openness to questions might be your sanity check - keeping leaders and followers on their best behavior and mutually responsible for what happens in the team.

Let’s choose wisdom and kindness over stupidity and discomfort. Build your courage day by day, ask some trusted co-workers for support if it helps, and ask that question or speak up. Let’s harness the power of questions to balance power and engage the collective intelligence.

  • How do leaders behave in your organization? Are they the best, brightest, kindest, wisest people or the other way around?
  • How do followers respond to leadership - what do they tolerate, do they speak up?
  • How can you make it more comfortable (and normal) to ask more questions?

© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.

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