Coffee Talk: The Power Paradox
What is the Power Paradox?
People rise in power due to what is best in human nature but fall from power due to what
is worst. Handling this paradox well is fundamental to the health of our society.
Dacher Keltner is a social psychologist whose research focuses on the
biological and evolutionary origins of compassion, awe, love, and beauty, and
power, social class, and inequality. He is the founding director of the Greater
Good Science Center, and a professor of psychology at the University of
Watch his November 2016 Leader Series webinar, Power Paradox: How we
Gain and Lose Influence: http://www.ippanetwork.org/leader-series/keltner/
A synopsis of the webinar and references are provided below.
Power is the capacity to alter the state of others.
There are two types of power:
- Coercive: relies on force or manipulation
- Virtuous: relies on “virtues in action”
- Virtues like empathy and humility are significantly more important to attaining and exercising power than are force, manipulation, or fear.
- The use of virtuous power is proven to enhance collaboration and innovation.
- Once gained, either through coercive or virtuous means, elevated power can paradoxically lead to:
– impulsive behavior
– tendency toward risk-taking
– low empathy toward others
- What people seek in their leaders—social intelligence—is often the very thing damaged by the experience of power.
- Ways to protect yourself against the power paradox:
o Pause to be aware of your power.
– The moment you feel invulnerable is the time you may be most vulnerable to acting inappropriately.
o Focus on others.
– When you serve others, you preserve the ability to empathize.
o Mindfully practice humility
– Remember that you are part of something bigger than yourself and others are just as important as you are.
o Listen to your gut.
- Ways to sustain virtuous power within a team:
o communicate openly
o allow for the ability to disagree
o encourage strong interpersonal ties
o reward and recognize virtuous behavior
Social implications of power:
- Disempowerment remains one of the biggest issues faced by our nation today.
- A sense of powerlessness can result in disengagement; poor health; depression; poor relationships; oppression; and bullying.
- Feeling appropriately powerful contributes to happiness, physical health, and healthy relationships.
- Helping others recognize that they exercise power whenever they alter another’s thoughts or behaviors helps to democratize the concept.
• Virtues like empathy and humility are significantly more important to attaining and exercising power than are force, manipulation, or fear.
• The use of virtuous power is proven to enhance collaboration and innovation.
• What people want from leaders—social intelligence—is often what is damaged by the experience of power.
• It is possible through the use of virtuous behavior to avoid the power paradox.
Tools & Resources:
Members, please share your experiences, comments, and questions in the comments section below!
– Does your organization have clear expectations for leaders around the most effective use of power?
– Have you ever personally assisted someone struggling with the power paradox? If so, were you able to help?
– If you are a practitioner, are there specific tools you’ve successfully used to help leaders ethically exercise power? On which aspect(s) of power would you most like researchers to focus?
– If you are a researcher on leadership or the use of power within organizations, what information or feedback from practitioners would most inform your work?