Power changes your brain, and that’s not always a good thing

By David Rock and Mary Slaughter

August 31, 2018

Experiencing power changes the way you think, perceive, and relate. “[It] creates psychological distance between the powerful person and everything else,” says Batia Wiesenfeld, a management professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.


You’ll see this instance in many forms. Influential people think (and speak) more abstractly than their less powerful peers. They’re also more optimistic and less sensitive to risk, because when they think about something at a distance, they tend to consider it in terms of desirability rather than feasibility. This means that at times, they place too much emphasis on the outcome, rather than what needs to be done–by them or their team–to get there. They are more likely to develop a shortcut mentality that can lead to many problems down the line.

Power and the two types of thinking

Scientific literature defines power as an “asymmetric control of resources.” When researchers study the effects of power, they do it in one or two ways–through priming people to feel powerful (for example, by asking them to recall a situation where they felt in control), or by actually comparing participants who have more real-world power with those who don’t, like sourcing participants who have executive experience and those who don’t. Power is dynamic in its own way. You might feel powerful when leading a team meeting, but powerless when you’re discussing something with the CEO.

The psychological science that power creates is a matter of what cognitive science calls “levels of construal.” Normally, it is talked about in terms of “high” versus “low” construal. The former is the high-level, big-picture vision, whereas the latter is the concrete, the detailed, the how. Successful leaders should be able to switch between the two, as well as make connections between them. It’s not enough for them to recite their vision, they need to be able to illustrate why achieving that vision is essential, explain how it’s going to happen, and be willing to sort out the messiness of the execution when their teams need direction.

But brain science suggests that making this switch can be a struggle. As University of Oregon psychologist Elliot Berkman detailed in the NeuroLeadership Journal, there are different brain systems for evaluating “why” and “how” when it comes to goals. The why areas relate to abstract thinking, mentalizing, and inferences about intentions. The how connects to concrete actions, execution, and motor control. When one is activated, the other goes on standby.


The power trap for leaders

So what does this have to with power? Here’s the thing–a lot of leaders fall into the trap of being stuck in the big picture, as well as the outcome. This can lead them to make ethically dubious decisions without thinking about the consequences. Similarly, this type of thinking can also present problematic business risks. Say a CEO is particularly passionate about a specific initiative–if they don’t think (and articulate) the tactical details, then there is a greater likelihood that they’ll crash and burn.


Wiesenfeld notes that staying in a high construal mode allows one to sell the world on a fraudulent vision–until the missing real world gets reported on and blows up. For a cautionary tale, look no further than Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, who focused on massive growth and scale while overlooking the effectiveness of Theranos’s own product. This approach ultimately contributed to the company’s downfall and put many of their users’ health at risk.


How to use the two types of thinking effectively

It’s not bad to use high construal thinking, but to be an effective leader you need to recognize when to use it, and when to switch gears. For example, if you’re talking to your team and direct reports, take the low construal approach. Go beyond the grand plan by inviting them to pitch you on approaches, and then refine them together. To help your employees avoid getting lost in the details, make sure you end by reinforcing how those details connect to the bigger vision.

If you’re talking to your manager (or manager’s manager), connect whatever it is you’re doing to the why, the larger goals of the quarter, the year, and the mission of the organization itself. They’re already living on an astral plane of high resolution visioning, so you might as well send a flare up to them. And if you’re talking to the next level up, you need to drive a semi-detailed discussion so they know what they’re agreeing to or rejecting.

There’s no avoiding what the science says: The mere fact that you’re a leader–or that your boss is one–is going to change how you think and perceive things. But if you know what power naturally does to people, you can make the most of it. After all, great power comes with great responsibility.

David Rock, PhD, is the cofounder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Mary Slaughter is the executive vice president of global practices and consulting of the NeuroLeadership Institute. 


This article has been updated to clarify the concept of  high-level and low level construal. 


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