Priming People to feel Powerful

You can prime people for power in a number of ways (according to a new book, “Friend and Foe”, by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer). You can get them to remember a time when they had power over other people. You get them to adopt a power posture—putting their hands on their hips or thrusting out their chests like gorillas (a technique developed by Dana Carney of the University of California, Berkeley). Or you can get them to listen to power anthems such as “In Da Club” by 50 Cent. This is a technique favoured by sports stars such as Serena Williams, a tennis player, who often wears headphones when she walks on court.

Making people more self-confident is good. But power also makes them more self-centered. In one study, researchers asked people to draw a capital “E” on their foreheads. People who had been power-primed were almost three times as likely to draw the E backwards—that is, from their own perspective rather than the perspective of onlookers—than those who had not.

Researchers asked people to roll a set of dice to determine the number of lottery tickets they would receive—a roll of two would earn two tickets—and then report the roll of their dice to the invigilator. People who were primed were more likely to over-report their scores. Finally, power turns people into hypocrites: not only are powerful people more likely to cheat, they are also more likely to condemn cheating or other forms of moral failure in other people.

The most important thing firms can do is to make sure they appoint somebody who can handle power. Messrs Galinsky and Schweitzer recommend a simple test: watch carefully how a prospective boss addresses powerless people such as security guards and waiters.

Bosses themselves need to recognise that power can be a poison as well as an aphrodisiac. They should spend as much of their spare time as possible with their families rather than hobnobbing with other powerful people. They ought to establish a relationship with a mentor who is licensed to speak to them frankly.

The Economist,  Sept. 5, 2015