VC Jeremy Liew shared a link to a concise, thought-provoking Adam Galinsky column, When You're in Charge, Your Whisper May Feel Like a Shout, on what the Columbia Business School professor calls the "power amplification effect." In interactions between parties of differing status, Galinsky writes, "the words of those with power loom large over those with less power." He cites three specific ways this can happen: First, any feedback, positive or negative, from a powerful figure often has a stronger impact than was intended. Also, silence from those in power creates anxiety in others. And finally, ambiguous comments by those with more power tend to be interpreted negatively by those with less.
This is what a CEO I once worked with called "the Blue Problem." He had to be tremendously careful when offering any opinion on his company's products and services, because if he said something along the lines of, "Oh, I sort of liked that better when it was blue," it was heard by his colleagues as "CHANGE IT BACK TO BLUE!"
As Galinsky notes, this isn't always a bad thing: "expressions of gratitude and praise are particularly resonant when expressed by those with power." But he also cites research that shows that "the powerful express less gratitude and less praise than those with less power." Another CEO I've worked with has learned that when she gives employees some brief, heartfelt positive feedback, it has a surprisingly powerful motivational effect--but she's realized that she has to go out of her way to make this effort, because her natural tendency is to focus on things that aren't going well.
I fully agree with Galinsky's advice to be mindful of the power differentials that exist in our relationships and to avoid causing unintended stress or anxiety when we're in positions of authority. But I'd qualify this by adding that the goal isn't to avoid using our power and authority at all costs; the goal is to employ the right amount of power and authority required by the situation.
I've worked with many clients and MBA students at Stanford who have felt sufficient discomfort with power and authority that it undermined their ability to command respect and build strong working relationships. This can lead to a pattern of underdoing it and then overdoing it, in which people who are uncomfortable with power habitually fail to assert themselves only to reach a tipping point and then blow their stack.
As is so often the case, I see emotions at the heart of these issues. The problems cited by Galinsky seem tied to a lack of what neuroscientist Richard Davidson calls "social intuition," the ability to sense and empathize with the feelings of others. Leaders--and anyone in the higher status role in an interaction--must cultivate the ability to be mindful of and inquire about the feelings of others. (Note that empathy can be learned.) At the same time, leaders must come to terms with their own feelings about power and authority, a process that may involve increasing their comfort with discomfort.
Photo by TravelMarx.