Knowledge @ ESCP Europe

Organisational Behaviour

The dark side of power: What happens when we get power and become leaders?

Power is not simply something that can make us feel superior, more unique and different from others. Research in psychology suggests that power can actually change the way we perceive information and process it.


Dr Benjamin G. Voyer, Professor of Behavioural Science and Academic Director, Bachelor in Management at ESCP Europe

He also teaches Marketing and follows Company Projects in the Master in European Business (MEB)


Leadership is a topic widely discussed in the media, and taught in business schools around the world. Yes, most of the time, discussions around leadership focus on the different types of leaderships (e.g. democratic or autocratic leadership styles), or the leadership profiles, which are best suited depending on circumstances or organisations. But behind the concept of leadership, are the often overlooked notions of power and status, which act as enablers of someone’s leadership. In my research, I study how power changes the way we see ourselves in relation to others. More specifically, I look at how power affects how we feel psychologically connected to others and how we act in leadership positions. In this post, I want to briefly discuss and review research, which highlights how power can affect how we behave and perceive the world around us.

How power and status change the way we see things and act

Academic researchers typically define power as either the capacity to influence others and stay uninfluenced, or as having control over different types of resources (e.g. financial resources). Power can come not only from one’s status in an organisation – a legitimate form of power – but also, for instance, from an expertise in a certain area – a form of power known as ‘expert’ power. Some individuals can thus have power, even though they do not necessarily have a high hierarchical status in an organisation - think for instance, of an IT person who has expert knowledge over key resources used and needed by many in an organisation.

Power is not simply something that can make us feel superior, more unique and different from others. Research in psychology suggests that power can actually change the way we perceive information and process it. For instance, recent research in cognitive psychology shows that individuals with power are more capable of focusing on essential aspects of a task and avoid visual distractions. Power also seems to reduce or impair the capacity we naturally have to step into the shoes of others. That is, individuals with power have been shown to be less capable of understanding the perspective of others, and their emotions and feelings. Other research suggests that people in power are more likely to behave in a socially inappropriate manner, for instance interrupting others, or speaking loudly in a quiet environment.

Protecting ourselves against the effects of power

So what can be done to prevent some of the negative consequences of power? My research on the topic provides direct inputs into managerial practices, and led to the development of a series of teambuilding activities, that help change the way leaders behave. These take the form of mini-games or tasks, which can be played in teams, to foster more interdependence in the team and balance out the negative effects of power.

A first type of task consists of training leaders to develop a ‘we’ mindset, rather than an ‘I’ mindset. This can be done by simply encouraging individuals to use the pronoun ‘we’ more frequently, and to adopt a team perspective, rather than a personal viewpoint. A second task consists of inviting leaders to become aware of the interdependencies they have with others. That is, to make a list of all the aspects of their daily work which rely on inputs from others, and take into consideration a different perspective. Finally, a third task consists of role-playing diaries, where team members are invited to write a diary describing the performing of common teamwork tasks, from the perspective of another team member.

The bottom line: Before choosing a leader, think about how he / she will react to power and status change

When deciding whom to promote in an organisation, human resource managers and board members often solely rely on factors such as individual potential, achievements, skills, personality traits and how well these fit with the new position. What are often overlooked, however, are the social psychological consequences of the promotion of an individual on their behaviour. In other words, one should not choose a leader just based on past accomplishments, but bearing in mind the potential consequences of a status change on behaviours.

Training leaders to develop appropriate interdependent leadership skills will ensure that they behave more as democratic leaders – that is, taking into consideration the inputs of others, and reach, whenever possible, a collegiate perspective – rather than autocratic ones – that is self-centred, and not taking into consideration others’ inputs when making decisions.

Of course, there is more to understanding the behaviour of leaders than simply looking at the psychological consequences of power and status – for instance personality matters as well – but most decision makers often ignore the fact that power does distort information processing and the perception of the social environment.

To learn more about this and research on the topic, you can watch the following talk given at a TEDx event organized in London, in January 2015: Click here