Enlightened Conflict

does power corrupt

November 3rd, 2016

 watch uh oh shit bad day crisis business


“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


Lord Acton in 1887




“Look. Here is what power does to just about every human being.


It’s going to make you not pay attention to people as well as you used to pay attention to them.


You may find yourself swearing at a colleague or telling them that their work is horseshit. You will be a little less careful in the language you use.

You will be a little less thoughtful about how things look from their perspective.


So just practise a little gratitude. Listen empathetically. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”


Professor Dacher Keltner




Let’s be clear upfront – power affects behavior.


power-within-corrupt-strongLet me be clearer – power affects everyone’s behavior.


And by everyone I mean … well … everyone. That includes you as well as me … if we become captain of a team, manager of a department, responsible for the management of a team, company or organization.




That may sound like a sweeping generalization but research study after research study <after another> reflect that power & authority change how people act and think. And not just big honking power but any position in which you have some power over some other people.




That is ‘affecting behavior.’


As in … “influencing how you think you should act and how you actually act.’


As in … that doesn’t mean it corrupts.


Corruption is driven by choice … as in choice with what you do with the power you have attained.


This doesn’t mean that corruption of power isn’t appealing. Because it is. Power distorts our view on what we believe is ‘right versus wrong.’ Mostly it comes to life in smaller ways … menial little ‘control’ aspects.


For example … in research participants were “primed” to feel less powerful or more powerful by asking them to think about people more or less powerful than themselves, or to think about times when they felt strong or weak. The results all stacked the same way. People who felt powerful were less likely to be empathetic; wealthy subjects were more likely to cheat in games involving dynamics-of-powersmall cash stakes and to dip their fists into a jar of sweets marked for the use of visiting children.

When watching a video about childhood cancer they displayed fewer physiological signs of empathy.


Similar results occurred even when the privilege under observation had no meaning beyond the experiment room. Rigged games of Monopoly were set up in which one player took a double salary and rolled with two dice instead of one: winners failed to acknowledge their unfair advantage and reported that they had triumphed through merit.


That said.


Power does not corrupt people. Only corrupt people abuse their power.


Power does not do things. Only people can do things.


I could then argue that the possession of power is not the key factor to corruption … it is character <or lack of character>.

Power is simply a tool … power is a tool of control … and how the tool issued depends on the user.


Power is an awesome force … it can be an adrenaline high. And I don’t care what field you are in, politics or business, the costs of power’s abuse are high.




But the benefits of power can also be high.


This means that anyone … anyone … can use their power for good or bad. The power itself offers a person options from which your character chooses which options to exercise.


We are not characters in Lord of the Rings where we put on the ‘ring of power’ with which Sauron/evil drives our action from there on out.


Power is … well … power. Nothing more and nothing less.




“The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”


Frank Herbert






Having had some power let me suggest that is can be a lot like addiction and drugs. Why do I say that? Well. Because addiction in some form or fashion is an inability to control urges to do, or not do, something <that was a bastardized definition of addiction>.


fire-is-temptingIf you have an addictive personality … well … power will fuck you up.


If you like the feeling but can manage the addiction temptation … you are fine.




How about not always “fine” but certainly manageable and more often than not you don’t act like a little Hitler or some demon spawn manager.


It helps you as a manger if you DO look at the research and DO recognize that power will tug your character wherever it can find a loose thread.


I could argue that money corrupts significantly more easily than power does but instead I will suggest it is a different type of temptation, addiction and corruption.


Wealth, or money, creates a layer of some weird guilt on top of the power grid … for example … “We know from other studies that the wealthy are more likely to lie and exaggerate about ethical matters,” researcher says. “Survey self-report data in economics and face-to-face data in psychology capture different processes. What I say I do in society versus how I behave with actual people.”


But pure power?


Pure control over people and what they do <and sometimes say>?




It is kind of easy to jump onboard that power trip.


Here is what I know.


Your 1st glimpse of power is different than you 51st glimpse of power.


What I mean by that is I am fairly sure I handled myself significantly better on my 51st then I did on my 1st.


And I don’t think I am unusual on that.


There is a comfort thing that happens. Maybe it is a self-comfort and self confidence that you either gain or … well … never gain.


I tend to believe I learned fairly quickly that the ‘power’ resided in “all for one, one for all” and not Me <as the one>. That didn’t mean I didn’t understand the responsibility of having ‘power’ because part of having power is that you are responsible for actually using it … uhm … responsibly and well.


That also doesn’t mean that on occasion I was faced with the ‘power dilemma’ which is what almost everyone who has sat in some corner office has faced, and felt, at one time … “I just want everyone to do what I tell them to do.”




We all feel it at some point.




We all <most of us> don’t really mean it in the grander scheme of things.


But that is the most recognizable corruption of power … in that little itty bitty thing I just noted. For the minute you succumb to the “just do what I tell you to do” you have permitted power to corrupt the greater good and, maybe worse, you have pushed your character off to the side under the guise of ‘expediency.’


I end with that point simply to suggest that power is a clever tool which comes in many sizes and shapes and appearances. And if you are not careful you can be corrupted in some very subconscious ways.


Which permits me to go back to the beginning as I end.


“So just practise a little gratitude. Listen empathetically. It shouldn’t be that difficult.


Just admit that power encourages us to affect our behavior. Because if you do that … well … you will be more likely to remain aware of your actions and intentions. And I would suggest thinking that, that awareness alone, will make you a better user of your power.


The world likes people in power who use it responsibly and well.

Enlightened Conflict