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Power Poisoning

I heard Kimberly Wiefling speak at the PMI Melbourne Symposium this week and learned a new phrase – Power Poisoning.


While I have studied and read about power for some time now, I was struck by the phrase as well as the research that Kimberly shared with us. In a previous post “People may be afraid of you, and why you should care” I mentioned that most of us don’t intentionally go out to intimidate people but it happens because of the various ways in which we hold power and rank (it’s not just positional power).


Power poisoning highlights that the gaining of power affects our focus and behaviours, unless we are diligent in raising our self-awareness.


Kimberly referred to the studies written in Robert Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss on power poisoning. The research found that when people hold power, regardless of their personality, it causes them to:


  1. become more focused on their own needs and wants
  2. become less focused on others’ needs, wants and actions
  3. act as if written and unwritten rules others are expected to follow do not apply to them.


Many other studies show the poisoning effect of power, such as in Cedar Barstow’s Power Paradox. It is also at the heart of why we see power as a dirty word – because it is so often misused. Power itself is not bad, it needs to be used wisely with greater awareness and the humility to ask for feedback.


I have written previously that leaders need to “Sweat the Small Stuff in Leadership”. People (and animals) constantly watch what those with power do, because ‘people pay attention to those who control their outcomes’, according to psychologist, Susan Fiske. As leaders, if we are not aware of this poisoning effect, small things we do can send unintended messages like not caring about the team or that they are not as important. Looking at your phone while in a meeting with a team member would be an example.


It reinforced to me how important it is for us to continue developing ourselves to raise our self awareness, around our own power and rank and the impact we have on others. Business results, growth, innovation, engagement and culture all suffer without this self awareness. If you want to inspire people to perform at their best, you really need to watch the impact of your power.


Do you think we get poisoned by power? Have you ever been poisoned? How do we know?

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