Leaders take note: Feeling powerful can have a hidden toll

March 21, 2021

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Leaders take note: Feeling powerful can have a hidden toll

New research finds that feeling psychologically powerful makes leaders’ jobs seem more demanding. And perceptions of heightened job demands both help and hurt powerful leaders. This research is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers note that while power-induced job demands are key to helping leaders more effectively pursue their goals and feel that their jobs are meaningful each day at work, these demands can also cause pain and discomfort away outside of work.

What the researchers say: “Power is generally considered a desirable thing, as leaders often seek power, and it’s very rare for leaders to turn powerful roles down,” said the lead author. “However, this view is qualified by the fact that many leaders feel exhausted and overburdened by their work. Our study helps shed light on this paradox, as it helps us understand why leaders might want powerful positions (they achieve more goal progress and feel that their work is more meaningful), but also face substantial consequences (their jobs feel more demanding in a way that causes anxiety and physical pain).”

The study shows that leaders who are higher in neuroticism—a personality trait that captures one’s propensity to worry and to experience stress—are particularly sensitive to both the costs and the benefits that come with feeling powerful at work.

“Neuroticism is generally associated with negative outcomes like stress, job dissatisfaction, and a focus on failures and frustrations,” the researchers write. “However, our results demonstrate that neuroticism can strengthen the indirect effect of power on goal progress and meaningfulness, highlighting that neuroticism can also have positive implications for powerful employees at work.”

With these findings in mind, the researchers offer options for how leaders and organizations can help powerful employees deal with the negative effects of experienced power—anxiety and physical pain. For those in positions of power dealing with anxiety, the researchers suggest giving these individuals access to increased social support and help in developing strategies for dealing with anxiety like practicing mindfulness or participating in stress management programs.

Taken together, these findings shed light on nuanced ways that power impacts leaders at work. Leaders feeling burdened by their power are likely to feel like something is awry or that they may just not be up to the task. This may be particularly likely for leaders high in neuroticism, but this work shows that feeling under pressure at work is a natural consequence of feeling powerful. Therefore, managers and organizations should recognize the discordant effects that power has on employees and realize that the experience of power is neither universally positive nor universally negative for powerholders.

So, what? The idea that leadership is stress-inducing is not particularly new. However, it does fit in with recent findings—reported in TR—from my field of behavioral neurogenetics and evolutionary studies.

For example, we know that only a small portion of the population—5 to 15% of us—have a genetically induced drive to be leaders or want power. We also know from our studies of hunter-gatherer societies that leadership in the sense that we know it is normally quite foreign to them. They only need or accept leaders in times of crisis.

Put the two together and it becomes clear that most leaders probably don’t have the drive to be leaders (which may be why a Gallup study showed that 95% of them are bad at it). This itself would induce anxiety. Also, to justify your position—especially in a senior leadership role—you probably have to invent or create crises, which is bad for business and bad for society.

A psychologist friend of mine once said that maybe the drive for leadership was akin to a personality disorder since it shares some symptoms with disorders such as narcissism and psychopathy.

What is certain is that bad leadership is one of the reasons for the rising rates of work and overall societal stress.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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