We have been talking a lot about leadership in my Stanford class on Organizational Behavior: An Evidence-based Approach. Last week, we had a pretty detailed discussion about how and why putting people into powerful positions seems to turn them into selfish jerks. I was also thinking about power earlier today when a German journalist from Chrimson interviewed me about Der Arschloch-Faktor. I was initially amazed that I was being interviewed by a religious organization -- but the journalist who interviewed my argued that the no asshole rule was, indeed, quite consistent with the golden rule. He wrote me that "We are financed by the The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), and therefore very interested in topics that deal with how human-beings interact, since that is what religion is all about."
likely blog about religion and the no asshole rule more in a few weeks.
But today I am going to focus on the question that reporter asked, "Are assholes born or
I am sure that there are some people who are genetically pre-disposed to be nasty and there are some people who -- perhaps as a result of emotional and/or physical abuse during childhood -- turn into assholes. But there is also strong evidence that, no matter what our "personality" is, we all can turn into assholes under the wrong conditions.
Asshole poisoning as a disease that you catch from others, and I talk a lot about that in the book. It is also something that happens -- with shocking speed and intensity -- when people are put in powerful positions. My colleague at the Stanford Business School Deborah Gurenfeld and her colleagues have been studying the effects of power on human beings for over years, and the findings are clear: power turns people into selfish and insensitive jerks, who act as if the the rules that the rest of us have to follow don't apply to them.
Perhaps the best quick summary of this research is an article San Francisco Chronicle last Fall called on power and its evil effects, The article summarizes this large body of research -- now hundreds of studies -- as follows:
documents the following characteristics of people with power: They tend to be
more oblivious to what others think, more likely to pursue the satisfaction of
their own appetites, poorer judges of other people's reactions, more likely to
hold stereotypes, overly optimistic and more likely to take risks.
It quotes one of Gruenfeld's main conclusions:
is the very root of power," said Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, a
social psychologist who focuses on the study of power. "For most people,
what we think of as 'power plays' aren't calculated and Machiavellian
-- they happen at the subconscious level. Many of those internal
regulators that hold most of us back from bold or bad behavior diminish or
disappear. When people feel powerful, they stop trying to 'control themselves.'
To illustrate how rapidly such dis inhibition can happen, it describes the lovely little "cookie study" done by Gruenfeld and her colleagues:
One of the simplest and yet most fascinating experiments to test the thesis is the "cookie crumbles" experiment. Researchers placed college students in groups of three and gave them an artificial assignment -- collaboration on a short policy paper about a social issue. They then randomly assigned one of the students to evaluate the other two for points that would affect their ability to win a cash bonus. Having set up this artificial power hierarchy, researchers then casually brought to working trios plates containing five cookies.
found that not only did the disinhibited "powerful" students eat more
than their share of the cookies, they were more likely to chew with their
mouths open and to scatter crumbs over the table.
The story also includes the personal experience that Gruenfeld often uses to start her talks on the effects of power:
offers a similar example from her career in journalism when she occasionally
met with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. She recalls that he routinely
would swig vodka from a bottle and eat raw onions -- without ever offering
to share -- "and it never even occurred to the rest of us,
because it was understood that he had the power and we did not."
The cookie study and the Rolling Stone story are just bits of evidence -- this pattern is supported by hundreds of studies. The upshot off all this research is that power turns people into insensitive and selfish jerks, so any of us who are put in position of power are at risk of asshole poisoning.
There is also an interesting twist, however, that -- if you look at Jim Collins findings about Level 5 leaders in Good to Great as well as less well-known, but more rigorous academic research -- leaders who who are able to avoid the poison, and instead focus on the needs of the people around them, are apparently more likely to lead more effective organizations.
So there are good reasons to find ways to resist such poison. Some of the best ways are to reduce status differences between people at different levels and to have as few hierarchical levels as possible. Another way is to learn how to listen more and talk less.
P.S. The main academic article where that summarizes this research is "Power, Approach and Inhibition" and was published in the Psychological Review. Also check out this study just summarized by U.S. News and World Report on how power makes it harder for people to see the world from the perspective of underlings.