By Julie Battilana y Tiziana Casciaro*
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
We are all susceptible to power’s intoxicating effects. Even though power is essential for taking charge and leading change, it makes people vulnerable to two insidious traps — hubris and self-focus. These traps erode both individual and team effectiveness. We have studied and taught classes in power for two decades and interviewed more than a hundred people on five continents about how they attained and exercised power. In this article, we offer strategies for recognizing —and avoiding— power’s pitfalls.
THE DANGERS OF HUBRIS AND SELF-FOCUS
The perils of hubris —the excessive pride and self-confidence that can come with power — are well-documented. Research shows that top executives who have experienced and been lauded for success become so overconfident that they’ll pay vastly inflated premiums for acquisitions, especially when board vigilance is lacking. Greater CEO hubris and acquisition premiums result in greater shareholder losses. If power goes to your head, everyone loses.
Research also proves that the ability to map networks is a source of power — but paradoxically, as people become more powerful, they are less likely to harness the benefits of accurately perceiving networks below them. That’s because of the self-focus induced by power: People at the top tend to become less attentive to subordinates and can’t be bothered to map their networks.
Not “seeing” the people you lead diminishes effectiveness all around. You can’t lead colleagues you don’t understand — and people aren’t motivated or able to contribute their best efforts if they perceive that you are disconnected and uninterested in them. You might be able to push through in the short term, but eventually, their performance will suffer and your leadership may be called into question
To effectively exercise power while avoiding its pitfalls, leaders must cultivate humility as an antidote to hubris and empathy as an antidote to self-focus. Those qualities increase openness to learning and altruism — the keys to using power toward a collective purpose that transcends self-interest.
Humility — freedom from pride or arrogance — requires having an accurate perception of one’s own abilities, accomplishments, and limitations. Several steps can help you instill it in yourself and your team:
MAKE IT ACCEPTABLE — EVEN DESIRABLE — TO SAY “I DON’T KNOW”
Anne Mulcahy, the CEO of Xerox from 2001 to 2009, was dubbed “the master of ‘I don’t know!’” by her colleagues. “They actually gain confidence [in you] when you admit you don’t know something,” she says. Her humble approach created space for others to offer their expertise and engage in turning the troubled company around. Research confirms that when a leader expresses humility, the quality of team members’ contributions improves, and job satisfaction, retention, engagement, and openness to learning rise as well.
ESTABLISH WAYS TO OBTAIN HONEST INPUT
Remember that not even the strongest leaders have all the answers. Studies have shown that the extent to which members take turns speaking is one of the best predictors of team performance. Leaders can encourage broad participation by establishing formal channels for honest input. Many companies do so through “all hands,” “open mic,” and “ask me anything” forums, starting with the top leadership team and extending down the hierarchy.
CREATE VISIBLE REMINDERS THAT SUCCESS IS FLEETING
Historians have written that behind every victorious Roman general riding through the streets in a chariot stood a slave whispering, “Hominem te memento” (“Remember that you are [but] a man”). Nothing dampens illusions of infallibility more than a memento mori, a reminder of the impermanence of our lives.
MEASURE AND REWARD HUMILITY
If you want to increase your humility, you must measure it. However, you can’t reliably assess it in yourself. An overconfident person is apt to claim, “I am the humblest person you’ll ever meet,” whereas someone who is genuinely humble will be more likely to say, “I try to stay humble, but I often fail.” Ask your colleagues for an honest assessment to get a true picture of how humble you are (or are not).
New leaders tend to be self-focused. They often feel they have a lot to prove, and that takes their attention inward. Unless their development is stunted, they gradually see themselves as interdependent with larger entities: company, community, country, and ultimately humanity and the planet. That sense of interdependence allows them to develop empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
The following actions can foster empathy in you and your team:
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN OTHER PEOPLE’S JOBS
The more embedded you are in someone else’s reality, the more empathy you’ll feel. Experiencing someone else’s reality firsthand builds empathy for colleagues and an appreciation for how various parts of the business are linked, creating the conditions to break down silos and enhance collaboration.
USE STORYTELLING TO MAKE THINGS PERSONAL
It’s not always possible, of course, to immerse oneself in another person’s job. Hearing others’ stories is a powerful alternative that likewise builds empathy. By creating space for such storytelling, organizations can help people transcend their own perspectives.
EMBED INTERDEPENDENCE IN ORGANIZATIONAL SYSTEMS
Companies can also combat self-focus by building an awareness of interdependence into their systems. Microsoft has removed ratings from its performance review process, refocusing evaluations on collaboration. Managers first ask employees, “How did you contribute to the success of others?” They then want to know, “How did your results build on the work, ideas, and efforts of others?” During the review process, they also encourage reflection with the question, “What could you have done differently?” This approach spotlights the reality that employees don’t work in a vacuum, they need one another, and their actions have consequences for their colleagues.
STEP OUT OF YOUR COMPANY AND INTO THE REAL WORLD
To appreciate your influence on others and develop empathy for them, you must move beyond the confines of your company and into communities whose lived experience is profoundly different from your own. This personal engagement is invaluable for shedding self-absorption and putting yourself and your business goals in perspective. Whatever your stature and status, engaging with the community around you will help you resist self-focus.
A balanced relationship with power is seldom developed overnight; after all, our emotions, not just our thoughts, are in play. Even when we exercise power for a noble purpose, we remain vulnerable to its corrosive effects. But by cultivating humility and empathy and implementing organizational structures that ensure true power-sharing and accountability, we can avoid the twin pitfalls of hubris and self-focus. Leaders who do so will boost their own effectiveness and facilitate exceptional performance from their teams.
*Julie Battilana is the Joseph C. Wilson professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the Alan L. Gleitsman professor of social innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, where she is the founder and faculty chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative. Tiziana Casciaro is a professor of organizational behavior and human resources management and holds the Marcel Desautels chair in Integrative Thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. They are the authors of “Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business.”
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