Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When Powerful Feel Incompetent, they Bully

Great write up by David DiSalvo on Neuronarrative blog. When the Powerful Feel Incompetent, the Rest of Us Feel Their Wrath:


You’re sitting at your desk when the phone rings. It’s your boss and he wants to see you in his office. You’re not sure why – nothing in particular comes to mind that would put you in his crosshairs. In fact, you’ve actually been doing a great job lately. Even your boss’s boss mentioned that you were doing outstanding work in a staff meeting the other day, right in front of everyone, including your boss. What could possibly be the problem?

You walk into his office, sit down, and are immediately awash in the most inappropriate display of yelling you’ve ever seen in the workplace. It’s hard to follow all of the criticisms he’s throwing at you, but you make out “incompetent,” “unresponsive” and “careless” amidst a caravan of expletives. The source of the criticism, you finally realize, is a small error you made in a report—something likely no one else even noticed. How could that bring on all of this?Or…is that really the source of this reaction? Then you remember the look on your boss’s face when his boss sung your praises in the staff meeting. Suddenly this makes sense—he was threatened, and now he’s found one thing to aggressively nail you on. It’s no surprise that power and aggression often move along the same track. In particular, the threat of losing power is like striking a match near the aggression gun powder keg. Studies have shown that the perceived need to protect one’s power kicks ego defenses into high gear, loaded with enough aggression to regret for a lifetime.This is, of course, personality specific. ... A new study in the journal Psychological Science took on this question from an intriguing angle: could it be that a lack of perceived self competence triggers aggression among the powerful? Power increases the degree to which people feel they must be competent, to fill the demands that come with a high position and to hold onto the position against would-be challengers. If someone in power doesn’t really think he or she is competent enough (or fears they might not be and thinks someone may eventually see through them) then any perceived threat could spark an aggressive reaction – or so this study wanted to test. ...

Taken together, the findings from these experiments (including the fourth, not described here for sake of post length) point to a strong conclusion: people in positions of power who do not perceive themselves as competent are far more likely to aggressively lash out against others. The result is ironic, because we typically think of those who attain power as being especially competent – how else can they get so far? But what this study suggests is that power may enhance self critique of competence, and the more someone questions whether they really have what it takes to be in power, the more threatened they’ll feel by any number of situations and people, and aggression too often follows.

I have been guilty of this, at work [hangs head in shame].

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