Analysis Of The Dark Side Of Having Power

Power, in its simplest form, means influence; our ability to influence others and influence proceedings in our everyday lives, is indicative of how powerful we are. The concept of power is often romanticised but it also seems to have a dark side, characterised by an inflated sense of self, unwillingness to accept others’ opinions and abusive behaviour. This article provides insight into this dark side of having power and highlights why we should be wary of it as we start various entrepreneurial ventures and/or climb up the corporate ladder.

Have you ever interacted with a boss or supervisor on a ‘power trip’? If you have, I’m sure you’ll agree when I say that it’s one of the more frustrating and upsetting experiences you’ll ever have endure; but its occurrence shouldn’t come as a surprise. Research has shown that when people feel powerful, they tend to abuse others; which supports the popular claim that:


“power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”


In an attempt to verify this claim and better understand the dark side of power, Trevor Foulk and Klodiana Lanaj conducted a study on 108 managers whom they surveyed for 10 consecutive workdays; the managers worked in a variety of industries including banking, education, engineering and health care. In order to manipulate their power levels, Trevor and Klodiana assigned the participants to five “power days” which involved exercises that activated a sense of power, and five control days which involved exercises that didn’t prime power.  The study came away with a few interesting findings and I’ll be sharing them with you in this article.


Consistent with literature supporting the “corrupting” nature of power, they found that on days when participants felt powerful, they reported having more negative interactions with others. These negative interactions took the form of abusive behavior (and language) towards others and rude/unprofessional replies from their subordinates.

Power tends to enhance abuse because it changes how we feel psychologically connected to others. Power makes people view others as psychologically distant, less important and simply a means to an end. So, instead of seeing people as individuals with ideas and emotions, power makes us see them more as resources to use to achieve our end goals. Additionally, power makes us feel special and more deserving of others’ attention, respect and effort. These inflated expectations are often not met, which then causes power holders to become more abusive and demanding, to get the results they want.


The study went a step further and surveyed the participants at home after work, to assess the aftermath of power trips and see if power holders remained unaffected by their actions after work. The study found that the power holders who engaged in abuse felt emotionally hurt or less fulfilled by their work day. Participants who engaged in abuse reported feeling - less competent, less able to relate to others, and less able to relax at home after work.

There are two reasons why power holders might feel less competent and hurt by their negative interactions.  The first reason is because of guilt, for violating social norms or falling below work etiquette standards that they’ve set for themselves. The second reason is because power-induced negative interactions threaten the leaders’ ability to maintain power over others. Subordinates that feel abused are more likely to retaliate, rebel or not comply with abusive leaders’ demands in the future.


“So, is it safe to say that - power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely is a valid claim?”


Well, no, it’s not 100% valid. The study included a personality survey which measured the agreeableness of the managers, and found that agreeable people abused others less when feeling powerful because of their innate need to maintain social harmony. Agreeable people make it their priority to maintain positive relationships with others, which diminishes the tendency for them to degenerate into abusive behavior. The “absolute” corrupting nature of power, therefore, may not be as absolute as some people have come to believe.


“So how can we avoid the dark side of power?”


The answer is a combination of two things - Who we surround ourselves with and our willingness to accept the opinions of others.  Because the underlying cause of a power trip is an inflated sense of self, curtailing this inflation usually requires an external source like trusted mentors and colleagues, who aren’t afraid to assert themselves even - or maybe especially - when it goes contrary to the power holder’s ideas. It is also important for people in positions of power to occasionally seek the advice of agreeable individuals whom they respect; because agreeable people offer insight into how their actions are affecting or will affect others.

But there will be no point of having this good company without being willing to accept their opinions and ideas. The willingness to see things from other perspectives and accept the opinions of others is important because it’s not possible to always be right and no single person has all the information required to make the best decision every time. Being more accepting of others’ views will help to maintain a well-adjusted approach to leadership and avoid going to the dark side of power.


The confidence that comes from positions of power can be quite remarkable but as this analysis has shown, there are quite a few costs to bear in mind as well. The more success you achieve in life, the more likely you are to take on a leadership role; and your success in that role is heavily dependent on your ability to bring the best out of the team you lead. Failing to avoid the dark side of having power will almost certainly diminish the collaborative and creative potential of that team. It is prudent, therefore, to temper our rosy view of power and start considering the negative effects that power has on our interactions with others and our overall emotional well-being.

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