Why most of the wrong things are done by good people? The perils of power

Behavioral ethics series #6: creating successful companies attuned to the values and challenges of the 21st century

In the previous text of this series, I described the three mains aspects of our daily working life that may lead to ethical blindness: the pressure of authority; peer pressure; and, the self-imposed pressure due to our professional role.

In this text, I discuss how our perception of power is another key aspect that may impair our ethical judgment.

Discussing the effects of power on ethics is particularly relevant to ensure sound corporate governance, as there is a consensus that ethical behavior in organizations largely depends on the integrity and example of its leaders.

Evidence shows, however, that establishing an appropriate ethical tone at the top is more difficult than it looks.

Numerous researches conclude that power tends to unconsciously change our behaviors by making us less empathic, more aggressive, and more hypocritical from a moral standpoint. These studies corroborate, therefore, the famous quote by Lord Acton that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. [i]

Let’s start with the empathy deficit. According to a senior HR manager interviewed in a book about culture at global financial institutions, “the easier it is to fire someone, the easier it is for top managers to lose empathy. Humans become numbers very easily for them. They (senior executives) lose empathy.”[ii]

This is not an isolated perception. Experiments conducted by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, show that, by analyzing the heads of powerful and not-so-powerful individuals under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, it becomes clear that power impairs a neural process called “mirroring” that is the cornerstone of empathy.[iii]

In the case of aggressiveness, a curious experiment found that people with more expensive cars (a symbol of social status) are much more likely to disrespect pedestrians and honk in a belligerent way than drivers of lower status cars.[iv] The more expensive the car, the more abusive the drivers.

The relationship between aggressiveness and power is well observed in the business world.[v] Dick Fuld, the former CEO of US investment bank Lehman Brothers whose collapse triggered the 2008 global financial crisis, is a clear example of this profile: His nickname was “Gorilla” due to his highly intimidating posture.

Since Fuld has demonstrated an inapt leadership of a major bank, his posture also fits very well with a paper whose conclusion is that powerful individuals become more aggressive when they feel they are incompetent in their domain of power.[vi] As Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky articulated two centuries ago, “The more incompetent one feels, the more eager he is to fight.”[vii]

In addition to reduced empathy and increased aggressiveness, other scientific experiments on the effects of power on ethics concluded that:

§ Upper-class individuals behaved more unethically than lower-class individuals. Relative to lower-class people, upper-class individuals were more likely to: i) break the law while driving, ii) exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, iii) take valued goods from others, iv) lie in a negotiation, v) cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize, and, vi) endorse unethical behavior at work.[viii]

§ More powerful people tended to impose strict moral standards on other people at the same time as they are more prone to practice unethical behaviors. Compared with the powerless, the powerful were more rigorous in judging other people’s moral transgressions than in judging their own transgressions.[ix]

§ Upper-class individuals were more likely to favor utilitarian choices in ethical dilemmas as well as were more prone to take resources from one person for the sake of benefiting others due to their lower empathy for the person whose resources were taken.[x]

§ Participants with a higher sense of power experienced less distress, less compassion and greater autonomic emotion regulation when confronted with another participant’s suffering.[xi]

§ Higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism. Upper-class individuals reported greater psychological entitlement, narcissistic personality tendencies, and were more likely to behave in a narcissistic fashion by opting to look at themselves in a mirror.[xii]

§ Individuals in powerful positions are more likely to see others in a negative way, particularly as lazy, incompetent, and unreliable. This increases the perception that others should be monitored, managed, closely regulated, and told what to do.[xiii]

The depressing results of all these studies make it clear that maintaining high ethical standards is a much greater challenge for business leaders.

Some psychologists devoted to this field, such as Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, argue that individuals under the influence of power act as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury: they become more impulsive, less risk-aware, and less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.[xiv] He has termed this the “power paradox”: once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.[xv]

Curiously, this is recognized even by offenders themselves. During the investigations of the Car Wash operation in Brazil (a huge corruption scandal), police officers found a handwritten note by a former C-level executive of state-owned Petrobras which said: “Ending corruption is the ultimate goal of those who have not yet come to power.”[xvi]

When we come to occupy powerful positions, we run the risk of starting to see ourselves as someone unique who must be subject to different standards than those under our supervision. As a result, we may unconsciously see ourselves above others and lower our ethical standards accordingly.

This issue is detailed by professor Muel Kaptein.[xvii] In his view, this happens because power feeds the image of rules being less applicable to the influential person. After all, supervision requires distance, and he or she does not see him or herself as belonging to the party being supervised. In the jargon of psychology, power tends to increase our “moral hypocrisy.”

Not everything, though, is bad news. Research has revealed that the effect of power on moral hypocrisy depends on the legitimacy of the power: When the position of power is denied a sense of entitlement, and the powerful individual feel that his or her position is illegitimate (in the sense that they feel to be very small for the relevance of their role), researchers observed that the moral-hypocrisy effect may be reversed, with the undeserved powerful becoming stricter in judging his or her own behavior than in judging others’ conduct.[xviii]

From the point of view of sound corporate governance, this suggests that managers should see their role as having a larger and socially important implication than just making money for shareholders.

By elevating the responsibility of business leaders as individuals who ultimately should serve society, we increase the chance that they will have a humbler perception of themselves, thus fostering humility instead of hypocrisy.

To sum up:

§ Research shows that power tends to change our behaviors. In particular, it is likely to makes us less empathic, more aggressive, and more hypocritical from an ethical standpoint.

§ Because power tends to increase moral hypocrisy, the challenge of maintaining high ethical standards is particularly difficult for business leaders.

§ On the other hand, when the powerful individual develops a perspective of humility related to his or her position, then power may have a positive impact on his or her behavior.

§ By elevating the responsibility of business leaders as individuals who ultimately should serve society instead of only making money, we increase the chance that they will have a humbler perception of themselves, fostering humility instead of hypocrisy.

Behavioral ethics series:

# 1: What is behavioral ethics and why this subject is important for all business leaders.

# 2: The first key finding of behavioral ethics: We overestimate our ethical behavior.

#3: Why do we overestimate our ethical behavior? Limited rationality and cognitive biases.

#4: Why do we overestimate our ethical behavior? Stages and dynamics of our decision-making process.

#5: Why most of the wrong things are done by good people? The pressures of our daily work life.

Prof. Dr. Alexandre Di Miceli is a professional speaker, business thinker and founder of Virtuous Company, a top management consultancy that provides cutting edge knowledge on corporate governance, ethical culture, leadership, diversity, and company purpose.

He is the author of “The Virtuous Barrel: How to Transform Corporate Scandals into Good Businesses” as well as of the best-selling books on corporate governance and business ethics in Brazil, including “Corporate Governance in Brazil and in the World”, “Behavioral Business Ethics: Solutions for Management in the 21st Century”, and “Corporate Governance: The Essentials for Leaders”.

He thanks Prof. Dr. Angela Donaggio for her valuable comments and suggestions.

[i] John Dalberg-Acton, Lord Acton (1834–1902). Source: Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton. (1907). Appendix, p. 504. Available at https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton

[ii] Luyendijk (2015: 98). Luyendijk, J. (2015). Swimming with Sharks: My Journey into the World of the Bankers (Vol. 4). Guardian Faber Publishing.

[iii] The Atlantic. July/August 2017 issue. Power Causes Brain Damage

How leaders lose mental capacities — most notably for reading other people — that were essential to their rise. Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/; Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht, M., & Obhi, S. S. (2014). Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 755; Obhi, S. S., Swiderski, K. M., & Brubacher, S. P. (2012). Induced power changes the sense of agency. Consciousness and cognition, 21(3), 1547–1550.

[iv] While drivers of lower status cars took an average of five seconds to honk, luxury car drivers honked in about two seconds! For more information, see Diekmann et al. (1996). Diekmann, A., Jungbauer-Gans, M., Krassnig, H., & Lorenz, S. (1996). Social status and aggression: A field study analyzed by survival analysis. The Journal of social psychology, 136(6), 761–768.

[v] It is unclear, though, whether power leads people to become more aggressive or whether our current corporate environment makes it easier for more aggressive people to reach the top.

[vi] Fast e Chen (2009). Fast, N. J., & Chen, S. (2009). When the boss feels inadequate power, incompetence, and aggression. Psychological Science, 20(11), 1406–1413.

[vii] Source: https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/fyodor-dostoevsky-1441.php

[viii] Piff et al. (2012). Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(11), 4086–4091.

[ix] Lammers et al. (2010). Lammers, J., Stoker, J. I., & Stapel, D. A. (2010). Power and behavioral approach orientation in existing power relations and the mediating effect of income. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(3), 543–551.

[x] Côté et al. (2013). Côté, S., Piff, P. K., & Willer, R. (2013). For whom do the ends justify the means? Social class and utilitarian moral judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), 490.

[xi] Van Kleef et al. (2008). Van Kleef, G. A., Oveis, C., Van Der Löwe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., & Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological science, 19(12), 1315–1322.

[xii] Piff (2014). Piff, P. K. (2014). Wealth and the inflated self-class, entitlement, and narcissism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(1), 34–43.

[xiii] Inesi, M. E., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others’ generous acts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 795–803. Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological science, 17(12), 1068–1074.

[xiv] The Atlantic. July/August 2017 issue. Power Causes Brain Damage

How leaders lose mental capacities — most notably for reading other people — that were essential to their rise. Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/

[xv] Keltner, D. (2016). The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. Penguin.

[xvi] UOL, coluna de Leandro Mazzini. 21/09/2014. Em agenda, Paulo Roberto Costa ironiza pobre e corrupção. Available at http://colunaesplanada.blogosfera.uol.com.br/2014/09/21/em-agenda-paulo-roberto-costa-ironiza-pobre-e-corrupcao/

[xvii] This issue is addressed in greater depth by Kaptein (2013: 53). Kaptein, M. (2013). Workplace morality: Behavioral ethics in organizations. Emerald Group Publishing.

[xviii] Lammers et al. (2010). Lammers, J., Stoker, J. I., & Stapel, D. A. (2010). Power and behavioral approach orientation in existing power relations and the mediating effect of income. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(3), 543–551.

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Professional speaker, business thinker and founder of Virtuous Company, a top management consultancy on corporate governance, culture, leadership, and purpose.

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Alexandre Di Miceli

Alexandre Di Miceli

Professional speaker, business thinker and founder of Virtuous Company, a top management consultancy on corporate governance, culture, leadership, and purpose.

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