Titles, tequila and power

Jan 10 2007 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

"We thought because we had power, we had wisdom"

Stephen Vincent Benet

"The problem with booze is that people who are not six feet tall and bullet proof should not suddenly believe they are"

My Old Man

A recent study out of the US shows that the phrase "drunk with power" is actually not far off the mark. People with power over others can start to lose the inhibitions that keep them within the bounds of normal social behavior.

The difference of course, is that when you say something stupid as a manager, you can't call the next morning and claim "it was just the job talking"- unless of course you were drunk at the time in which case it's time for a chat with the nice lady from HR.

This is not to assume that there is an immediate connection between middle management and alcohol (behavior at the annual sales meeting notwithstanding). It's that there IS a connection between the job of a manager and the power it holds, we're just not usually aware of it.

Yes, you read it here. The job of a manager, even (maybe especially) that of a first line or middle manager, is an incredibly powerful one. And like alcohol, its effects can kind of sneak up on you.

The fact that we're powerful may come as news to a lot of us who spend inordinate amounts of time whining about the fact that we cant' get anything done and that nobody listens to us. But if you have anyone reporting to you, it's critical to understand the effect your words and actions have on the people who report to you.

Marshall Goldsmith, in his new book "What Got you Here Won't Get You There" gives an example. He talks about the tendency of managers to want to "add value" to employee suggestions and thus reduce buy-in and enthusiasm. How can that happen?

Mary comes to you with a new idea. You love it. You give her all the appropriate praise and encouragement. Being the clever person you are, you see a minor improvement that can be made and you let her know about it. It's a suggestion, that's all. She can take it or not, you're just trying to help. The problem is that because of your position, that minor suggestion has the feeling of an order, and it's no longer her idea, it's yours.

We managers are sometimes unaware of the power we have over people who report to us. Think about it this way- we may be annoyed that people don't do what they're told. On the other hand they believe we can get them fired on a whim. They can give us a headache, we can put them out on the street without a penny. Hardly a fair fight.

Even this rather simple example assumes good intentions and unintended consequences. It's not always so innocent. Research on power dynamics shows that, in general:

  • People in power tend to be more oblivious to what others think
  • They are more likely to pursue satisfaction of their own goals
  • They tend to be overly optimistic about outcomes
  • They tend to take more risks

And it's not that we are megalomaniacs who thirst for power in some James Bond-Villain kind of way. It's that the normal dynamics between people in authority and those beneath them tend to reduce the kind of feedback that inhibits negative behavior.

It's kind of like how that little voice in your head that says, "no one really wants to see your Borat impression again" is loud and clear at the beginning of the party. Yet the more Jagermeister we consume the more we're convinced everyone will find it as hysterical as we do and that little voice gets crammed away blindfolded and wrapped in duct tape and we're naked on YouTube screaming "Very Nice" at the top of your lungs. Or it that just me?

Without honest feedback about our impact on others and the quality of our decisions, we gradually become disinhibited. Everyone does what we say, nobody tells us "no", so they must be good ideas. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of our own brilliance and infallibility.

Believe me, nothing good can happen when the little voice in the back of your head stops telling you when you've gone too far.

In Roman times, when generals paraded through the streets, waving in triumph, a slave (who could be thrashed thoroughly but not fired) would stand beside them and whisper, "memento mori", which roughly translated means, "remember thou art mortal". Not coincidentally, it's the same thing my wife does at parties.

Maybe your organization needs to encourage people to do the same when you want to change the utilization reports for the fifth time this year, rather than just smile and nod with a glazed expression and hope you'll forget about it.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.