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Power. Touched by the Effect of the Letter ‘E’

How does power impact the behavior of managers and their subordinates? How does your place in the chain of command affect creativity? Dr. Dorota Wiśniewska-Juszczak, psychologist, lecturer in leadership and management program at SWPS University, talks about decision making and management and the impact they have on social roles in an organization.

Let’s do a simple experiment. Take a crayon and draw a capital ‘E’ on your forehead. Perform this action before reading this text. Done? If on daily basis you are in a position of power, you have probably drawn the letter ‘E’ with the horizontal lines pointing to your right. Well, you have made it harder for the observers to read the letter, because they see it as if it was reflected in the mirror. i.e. turned in the opposite direction. No wonder. People who are in power tend to focus on themselves and their own perspective.

During a study, researchers exposed participants to memories that would either activate the feelings of power or the feelings of subordination. After that, the participants were asked to draw the capital ‘E’ on their foreheads. It turned out that managers drew the ‘E’ from their own perspective three times more often than the rest of the group. The researchers, led by Adam Galinsky from Columbia Business School, proved that performing managerial roles significantly increases egocentrism and discourages from looking at the world from a perspective other than one’s own.

People who are authorized to manage subordinates (even if it is only for research purposes) automatically assume that other people possess the same knowledge and have the same access to information as themselves. If you analyzed the behavior of people in managerial roles, you would notice that the effect of the letter ‘E’ occurs in their daily work and it may lead to the objectification of employees, a disregard for the needs of others and in pursuing one’s own goals. Power does not only lower empathy levels, but also increases the confidence in one’s own opinions and restricts the tendency to take advice of others into consideration. While managing others, you lose motivation to understand them. American researchers Jennifer Overbeck and Bernadette Park have shown that people try to understand others only when they realize that without their help they cannot achieve professional goals.

Subordination kills Creativity

However, power is more than just a big ego. One of the most crucial managerial competencies is the ability to make changes and to introduce innovations. Moreover, managers need to feel powerful and influential and they need to behave in such a way that others do not feel inferior. Controlling and managing others strengthens perseverance in achieving goals, increases creativity and lowers conformism. It enables you to see the world from the birds eye view, without focusing on unnecessary details. As Keltner, Gruenfeld and Anderson, social psychologists from Stanford University showed, taking on the role of a subordinate, activates a breaking system, which leads to focusing on details, blocks creative thinking, inhibits action and, in turn, hinders implementation of changes.

A Good Manager

To develop people, you must know their needs and you have to recognize their potential. You must know where, in the long run, this process is supposed to lead the manager and the employees. Only then the correlation of goals occurs. Leadership is also important, so that others know where you are going and why you are going there. As Charles de Montesquieu said: “to become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them”. The management style that allows you to be close to people and their problems is most important.

How to achieve it? Here is some advice based on multiple research studies. First of all, do not stop managing, planning, delegating and expecting results from your employees. Be close to people and remember about their daily professional life and their needs. You are not a lone star. You manage a team. When you are building the team, do not do it just for yourself, but also for the team members.

Leadership is seductive, because it can make managers feel that they rise above others. It can make them feel better and more important and as the result, they begin to think that they can push the boundaries. They begin to think that they are above the law, which can make them prone to breaking the rules or more susceptible to inappropriate behaviors. It happens due to the approach system which becomes activated in situations of exercising authority. Hence, when managers start feeling superior, they should leave the office, go to the cafeteria and listen to their employees talk about their problems, worries and interests. Managers should let them speak and present their ideas. Leaders should take into consideration other perspectives and look for solutions that really meet the needs of the employees.

It is also important for managers to receive feedback and to constructively react to the evaluation. It will help them to avoid egocentrism – the above-mentioned effect of the letter ‘E’. It will also prevent their fall from grace and finally it will help them to stay in power. Research shows that teams work best, which includes their effectiveness in completing tasks, when the energy released by the leaders is combined with looking from the perspective of others – by bosses, not by employees.

When I hear managers, who lead teams, say that they do not want to have power, I begin to worry about their employees. A position, which allows someone to manage, provides an opportunity to influence people and processes. Effective leadership is not possible without this power. Leadership makes sense only when leaders are responsible for others.


dorota wisniewska

About the Author

Dorota Wiśniewska-Juszczak – psychologist, subject-matter expert and lecturer in the leadership and management program at SWPS University. Her research interests include various aspects of power and leadership, such as positive and negative effects of leader/subordinate relations. She also researchers consequences of applying different strategies of influence in relations with subordinates.

As a practitioner, trainer and consultant, she specializes in building effective teams and developing communication among team members. She developed an innovative method for the evaluation of leadership potential in managers. She is a certified trainer of Insights Discovery and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT).

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