Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

The More Powerful You Are, the Less You Should Assume You’re Right

Pete Souza/White House file photo

Imagine a group of strangers wash up on a desert island. It wouldn’t take long for a hierarchy to emerge, with a few leading and the rest following.

Society naturally evolves into power structures, as individuals exert their authority over others, writes Brian Lowery, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. There are six sources of power, first described by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven:

  • Reward: Giving people what they want
  • Coercion: Using fear to control others
  • Information: When we we know something others don’t
  • Legitimate: Power that derives from mutually agreed upon roles, such as the power of a CEO
  • Expert: Power that comes from the possession of skills or expertise, such as the IT expert at a small firm
  • Referent: The power that comes through fame or charisma

Reward and coercion may be the most easily understood, but are the least efficient, Lowery says. You can only force people to do your bidding if they have reason to fear you, which requires surveillance. Rewards work only as long as incentives are aligned; paying someone by the hour can result in work being done slowly.

As individuals increase their power, they lose perspective over how they wield it. They can view others as tools, and become overconfident of their own judgment. Lowery says powerful need to surround themselves with people who can keep them in line:

“What I would strongly suggest is, as your power grows, you have people to help you check your own behavior. Don’t rely on yourself as a good person to check your behavior because you could end up missing what’s going on.”

The more powerful someone is, the more dangerous the implications of lacking perspective. “Think of [power] as fire,” Lowery says. “It’s useful, but it’s also dangerous.”

Close [ x ] More from GovExec