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Executives directly impact any organization’s culture and success. The right leader can catapult the organization forward, while a mismatch can drive the loss of your top talent and rapid market decline. But what is surprising is that a once-excellent leader can quickly become problematic because of how power impacts the brain.
The science of power
Neuroscientists have found interesting patterns visible on brain scans. Did you know that power changes the brain, making people more impulsive and less concerned with how their actions impact others? We can see this reflected in several recent headlines with formerly respected entrepreneurs making choices that endangered the health of their organization or even the lives of customers and employees.
Power can also cause leaders to project their own beliefs and feelings onto others, leading them to perceive signs of agreement that are not there. This can lead to conflicts, poor decisions and loss of trust with peers, employees, customers and board members. Even worse, it can lead to criminal behaviors such as sexual harassment or racial discrimination.
One psychologist states: “The brains of powerful individuals react differently to social cues in ways that resemble psychopaths or patients with frontal brain damage— who lack empathy and the ability to take others’ perspectives. Research has shown that power can deform the brain to act in the same ways.”
This neurological shift occurs incrementally, showing up in small ways that are puzzling to colleagues. But left unchecked, it can quickly grow into well-established patterns with dangerous consequences.
Another outcome is that executives become blind to or out of touch with the reality facing their workers, which is exacerbated as salaries rise, changing their socio-economic status and accelerating the impact of various privileges. The ratio of executive-to-employee compensation has risen from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 399-to-1 in 2021, with a rapid increase since the pandemic, both nationally and globally.
Employees and customers who lose trust in their executives will likely leave at a significant cost to the organization. Further, they are likelier to broadcast their frustration on social media and engage in labor actions like strikes.
Strategies to counterbalance the damage of power
So, how do you protect against the damage that power does to the brain? You must counterbalance its effects early and often. Consider these strategies.
1. Install a rigorous selection process for executives
This goes beyond the usual vetting of their skills and accomplishments. You also want to intentionally look for signs of recent shifts in behavior, such as making problematic choices and ignoring data or peers. These are signs of the “hubris syndrome,” a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power that has been associated with overwhelming success, held for years, and with minimal constraint on the leader. Its clinical features include:
- Conflates self with organization
- Shows excessive self-confidence
- Takes action to enhance personal image
- Restless or reckless/impulsive actions
- Displays of incompetence
- Manifest contempt for others
- Loss of contact with reality
- Believes only accountable to a higher authority and unshakeable belief that authority will vindicate them
Once developed, leaders don’t quickly recover from the damage done by power, so instead, make sure you hire executives who show recent humility, demonstrate emotional intelligence, and are willing to learn and grow. A McKinsey study found that up to half of CEOs are deemed to be failing during their early tenure, and 90% of CEOs wish they had managed their transition differently — support new executives with a formal onboarding process for their first 90 to 120 days.
2. Invest in regular executive training
While it’s vital to make the right choice when bringing on senior leaders, investing in their continued learning and development is equally critical. Interestingly, 83% of organizations believe developing leaders at every level is important, but only 5% have implemented programs. Executive training and coaching should be a top priority whether your company is a startup or a well-established giant in your industry.
Developing emotional intelligence, notably self-awareness and empathy, can alleviate the adverse effects of power. Effective executive training teaches these skills and helps leaders understand the dangers of power and the importance of preventing or addressing them early on. Other critical skills include strategic thinking, change management and product innovation. Invest in an in-house training program or engage consultants who specialize in executive training and coaching — it will pay for itself in numerous ways.
3. Institute policies and systems to contain behaviors and resulting damage
Instead of waiting for power’s damage to take hold, executives should create an environment of empowered staff who can challenge them without fear of repercussions. Concerns are most often reported to the chief of staff or chief people officer, so these roles are especially vital. Policies and systems should create checks and balances and detect warning signs of problematic behavior.
4. Establish regular practices to keep executives in touch with the experiences of workers and customers
The TV show Undercover Boss is a perfect example of the many benefits that come from executives walking in their employees’ shoes — it shakes off the shield of power and privilege, giving executives a clear view that increases empathy. Reports and data are valuable but not nearly as compelling as first-hand experience. At a minimum, make it a regular practice to visit the frontlines and have authentic conversations with workers and customers. One best practice is an undercover experience that rotates regularly among senior leaders with discussions to debrief lessons learned and changes needed.
The data is clear — the skills and experience that get someone to the C-suite are not necessarily the same ones that help them thrive in the role. The best leaders understand the dangers of power and intentionally ensure they build an environment that sets the organization up for ongoing success.