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How Power Affects Individuals?

By Nirmalya Kumar

Power of “A” party over “B” is related to the dependence of B on A. This dependence happens because A controls some resources, such as rewards, punishments, or expertise, that can be bestowed on B, and B does not have attractive alternatives to A. My early research career was devoted to investigating power and I was following a rich literature in this area. Much of the research was related to effects of power on individuals, while I focused on effects of power in relationships. Power and its use is rampant in organisations. Much of organizational behavior that I observed was motivated by a desire to obtain power, and from a fear of losing it.


As they are climbing the organizational ladder and attempting to gain power in organisations, executives need to be aware and pay attention to the emotions and concerns of others. However, the irony is that once they acquire power, people tend to lose this ability for empathy. Both experimental manipulations as well as more recent brain scans demonstrate the empathy deficit suffered by powerful people.

People in power pay more attention to their goals and are less able to “read the room”. It seems to impair the capacity for “other perspective taking” and social attention. Powerful people are more likely to interrupt others, speak first, all the way to the mundane act of being more likely to take the last biscuit from a plate in a room. When asked to judge their own and the heights of others, powerful people overestimate their own height and perceive others to be smaller than they really are.

Whatever we think of how desirable or undesirable this lack of empathy is, it is rational. When trying to obtain power, one is dependent on others for resources, so one needs to be acutely conscious to the feelings and reactions of others. Once having obtained power, one is less dependent on others and more focused on the goals to be achieved. The positive side of this is that powerful people are less easily distracted when pursuing a task or goal.

Power seems to have many beneficial effects for the holder. People in power enjoy better health and longevity. They have higher self-esteem and self-satisfaction. It is therefore not surprising that power holders are more confident and more optimistic. However, they also make more decisions based on gut feel. And, when thwarted from their aims, powerful people can become more frustrated, depressed and angry.

Power is not only bestowed, but also flows from being acquiesced by the followers. Men who were not judged to be attractive earlier, are rated as more attractive after they assume positions of power. While this effect may seem contrived, it is symptomatic. It was amusing to observe how subordinates start mimicking the phrases, tastes, and even body language of their superiors. Given this increased adulation, at a deeper level, power changes the person’s self-evaluation. It makes them more susceptible to flattery, which can feed feelings of being all knowing and all powerful. This is when it enters the danger zone.

At the extreme, power can lead to the hubris syndrome, a subject of next weekend’s read.



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