How to Not Let Power Go to Your Head as a New Leader

How to Not Let Power Go to Your Head as a New Leader
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New Leadership Power
We know from People Manager Assessment Center data and new manager training participants that gaining power at work without sufficient preparation can undermine the ability to effectively lead, manage, and coach teams.  This is especially true for those who may not yet be fully qualified to lead yet inappropriately try to prove that they are in charge.  At its worst, leadership power can be misused, abused, and create a toxic work culture.  The key is not to let power go to your head as a new leader.

But what if the old saying that “power corrupts” isn’t completely correct?   What if, when it comes to transitioning as a new people leader, the saying “power makes you blind” is more accurate?  That’s what modern neuroscience tells us — and this fact has huge implications for leaders and managers of organizations.

Two Studies on Leadership Power — Reduced Sensitivity
The neuroscience comes to us from two noteworthy sets of experiments carried out over the past couple of decades and highlighted by our microlearning experts.

  • Loss of Ability to “Read” Others
    One of these studies was done by researchers at NYU, Northwestern, and Stanford. They primed a group of volunteers to feel powerful, while leaving another control group of volunteers alone. The researchers found that those in the “primed” group were much less able to understand oral and written expressions of emotion from other people. They also were less effective at correctly interpreting facial expressions.

    What does this mean for leaders?

    When you gain a degree of power — it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or absolute — something fundamental changes in your brain. You lose social abilities that are key to understanding what other people are thinking and feeling. The “blind spots” that result from this loss of ability to read others can defeat your efforts to effectively lead teams.
  • Less Empathy
    The other study came from two Canadian universities, Wilfred Laurier and Toronto. Researchers there found that “motor resonance” circuits — which guide our brains to respond empathically to others – shut down in the brains of the powerful. The study concluded that “the effect of high power appears to be reduced interpersonal sensitivity.”

Warning Signs that You Let Power Go to Your Head as a New Leader
None of us is immune from the blinding effects of power. So, it’s incumbent upon every leader to self-evaluate and not lose perspective. You probably let power go to your head as a new leader if you:

  • Explicitly or implicitly Sabotage the success of others
  • Back-channel at work to get your way or to make yourself look good
  • Put power distance between yourself and your team
  • Make it hard for others to speak freely, disagree, make mistakes, or take risks
  • Are insecure about having the leadership skills and experience to succeed
  • Think your title alone demands respect
  • Believe it’s “your way or the highway”
  • Take credit for the work of others
  • Frequently say “I” and “me” instead of “we” and “us”
  • Worry more about optics and how you are perceived than helping your team to succeed
  • Micromanage your team
  • Compete with others for recognition
  • Tell people what to do instead of actively involving your team early in the decision making process
  • Lead everyone the same way versus adjusting your leadership style to different people and tasks
  • Struggle to actively listen to people in order to truly grasp not just their words but the facial expressions and body language that reveal what they really mean
  • Do not have close relationships with those who you work with

The good news is that there are techniques that can counteract power-induced emotional blindness.

Three Remedies to Not Let Power Go to Your Head as a New Leader
Based upon field-tested lessons from our action learning leadership development programs, make sure that you create leadership team alignment by:

  1. Showing Authentic Vulnerability
    While you may want to immediately prove your mettle as a new leader to show you are up for the job, if you want to gain the trust of your team, show vulnerability.  Because you’re in a power position, people may think you know everything and never experience doubt. So, they show you little emotion and deprive you of critical information that you need to know to make better leadership decisions.

    Vulnerability is contagious. When one person shows it (especially a leader), others emulate it. When leaders acknowledge their vulnerability, their teams tend to demonstrate higher levels of trust.

    Show them you’re human. Admit you make mistakes.  Admit you have blind spots.  And ask for their help.  If you open yourself up to your people, they’ll open up to you and speak more freely and honestly.
  2. Having Routine “Level-with-me” Conversations
    Have routine “level-with-me” conversations with a handful of trusted colleagues. Ask them if they see blind spots in your decision-making. But don’t just do it when there’s a specific problem. Establish these conversations as a team norm so people feel more at ease discussing important issues they might see.

    Caution: Never become defensive or upset if you hear something you don’t like. You’ll destroy connections with your trusted colleagues if you react negatively to what they say.
  3. Always Listening for Subtext
    Too often, instead of telling the truth, your team members will tell you what they think you want to hear. Emotionally unaware leaders listen only to the words people say and get misled. Emotionally aware leaders listen with all their senses, picking up on emotional cues that are conveyed through body language, voice tone and facial expressions.

To sum up, the research suggests that people in positions of power are susceptible to bad decisions when they lose the ability to read emotional cues and gather the insights those emotions convey.

The Bottom Line
Don’t let your new power as a leaders blind you to helping your team to perform at their peak.  Your loss of perspective will only decrease your leadership effectiveness. If you are a bit too eager to prove that you are ready to lead and exert your power as a new leader, push your insecurity and ego aside, practice awareness, and go out of your way to establish and maintain emotional connections with your people.

To learn more about how to not let power go to your head as a new leader, download 29 Ways to Build and Maintain Trust as a Leader

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