A client of mine is a chief marketing officer for a well-known company. I’ll call her Chandra.
Chandra is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences around the world, but when she’s around her boss — the CEO — she gets tongue-tied. It’s easy for her to speak to a room of 500 strangers. Talking with her boss, in a one-on-one meeting, is another story. His style makes her feel inept, and she has trouble presenting her ideas with wit and confidence.
Now let me switch gears. Remember the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform explosion in 2010? That disaster claimed 11 lives and spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing massive environmental, economic and social destruction. Shortly after the event, Tony Hayward, then-CEO of BP, the company primarily responsible for the tragedy, caused an uproar when he said that while the event disrupted the lives of residents near the Gulf, it was also taking a toll on his personal life.
“I’d like my life back,” he said at the time, putting his discomfort on par with others, including those who had lost their lives or loved ones in the explosion.
What do these two examples have in common? Both Chandra and Hayward, despite their high-ranking roles, fell prey to low-rank feelings. Chandra’s high power sinks when she’s around her boss; the stress of the Deepwater Horizon spill overwhelmed Hayward, and he lost sight of his powerful role and his responsibilities. He focused on his perceived victimhood instead.
That’s human. We don’t always feel powerful, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed or caught up in the tensions and stresses of the moment.
But in a high-power role, our everyday, human tendencies can have enormous cost. When we act out of a feeling of weakness, we are prone to use our power poorly. Self-interest overrides organizational interest. Hayward put his inconvenience on par with one of the largest ecological and economic disasters of the century, precipitating a PR nightmare for his company and, ultimately, his own resignation. Or, as in the case of my client, Chandra, it may simply be a matter of losing effectiveness. By focusing on our powerlessness, we forget how to do our jobs.
The problem with social power, that is power that comes from one’s position or social status, is that the authority of the role doesn’t transfer into a feeling of power in every situation. Social power doesn’t always feel powerful.
Hayward sunk into a low-rank feeling right at the moment when he should have been most mindful of his high-ranking role. And Chandra loses her sense of power precisely when she needs it most.
Of all the misuses of power I’ve witnessed, almost all stem from a feeling of powerlessness. Like my client and Hayward, it’s surprisingly easy to abdicate the responsibilities of a role or put our self-interest first when we feel powerless, regardless of our social position:
- Senior vice presidents become embroiled in turf wars, politics and competition with their peers on the leadership team.
- CEOs struggle to manage their executive teams and hold people accountable.
- A doctor rushes through informing her patient of bad news because she’s afraid of his emotional response.
- The mayor blames the media for reporting for his low approval ratings.
- A supervisor avoids intervening in a staff dispute, paralyzed by fear of conflict.
John Adams once wrote, “It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power.” Adams saw that curtailing the abuses of power begins with acknowledging weakness and how easy it is to fall prey to, as he put it, our “passion.”
If high power is what we chase, why doesn’t a powerful role protect us from feelings of low rank? Across the board, low rank is a stronger emotion than high rank. In fact, low rank is limbic.
The limbic system is the area of the brain in charge of managing emotion and forming memory. It’s ground zero for instinctual fears and motivations. Under threat, the limbic system — our emotional brain — kicks into gear. The amygdala sends signals that flood us with hormones, activating our automatic responses.
From an evolutionary standpoint, low rank is a matter of life and death. You’re at the mercy of something or someone with greater power. You could be killed, hurt or eaten. It’s a classic fight, flight or freeze moment. Even if we’re not physically threatened, we still respond with the same surge of hormones. Our emotional brain doesn’t parse probabilities. A critical comment, challenging remark or stressful event can trigger the same reaction as a charging tiger.
But isn’t high rank emotional as well? Doesn’t it feel great to have power? Don’t we also feel proud, confident and assertive?
Indeed, high-power roles have an emotional charge, but not a life-threatening one. The emotions associated with low rank — fear, hurt, outrage, depression and anger — signal danger, and thus take priority over anything else happening in that moment, including the responsibilities of a high-ranking role.
Psychologists call this phenomenon the “negativity bias.” Negative events, emotions and memories take precedent over positive ones every time. Negative memories last longer than positive onee, and there are more words for negative emotional states than there are for positive feelings. People fear negative feedback far more than they anticipate positive feedback, and the emotional impact and psychological effects of bad experiences far outweigh the happy ones.
This is why, under stress, attack and significant pressure, the force of low rank clouds our ability to stay mindful of our high-ranking role. In Hayward’s position, we might all say something as bone-headed.
But there’s some good news. Whether we act on our feelings of low rank or not — whether that “amygdala hijack” takes over or not — is up to us. Power is a feeling, and how we feel depends on how we use our power. Our emotional state is more predictive of our behavior than our status or position. To do well in our high-power roles, to stay mindful of others when self-interest kicks in, to focus on responsibilities when fear or outrage overcome you, you need an essential set of skills — emotional skills. You have to know your feelings, know what sinks you and know how to manage the ups and downs of your emotional life.