The media regularly reports on the crooked dealings of influential people: the singer who preaches family values, while involved in an extramarital affair, the director who reduces his staff’s salaries and doubles his own bonus, the police commissioner who is strict in tackling speeding, but floors the gas pedal in a built-up area, and the politician who speaks out for honest government, but allows himself to be bribed by business. One explanation often offered is that everyone occasionally oversteps the mark, even those in high positions. The only difference is that the behavior of people in high places receives more public attention: tall trees catch the most wind. Another possible reason is that people in high places are expected to have higher moral standards and therefore fail more readily and significantly. An employee of a random company who fiddles his private tax return will not be sacked, while a politician must pack up and leave for this.
There is another, additional explanation. Joris Lammers and colleagues questioned whether power in itself leads to a greater chance of unacceptable behavior. In order to test their suspicions, they carried out the following experiment. The participants were assigned a role in which they either had a great deal of power or very little. One participant, for example, would be a government minister, the other a civil servant. They were then asked to give their opinions on various unethical situations, varying from breaking speed limits in order to arrive at an appointment on time, not declaring private income to the tax authorities and taking possession of a stolen bicycle left in the street.
The results showed that the more power people have the more they condemn the unethical behavior of others. Speeding, for example, received 6.3 on a nine-point scale (from completely unacceptable to completely acceptable) from the participants with power, while the participants with little power gave it 7.3. At the same time it was shown that the more power people have the less they disapprove of their own unethical behavior. The powerful participants rated their own speeding at 7.6, and those with little power rated their own speeding at 7.2.
The research by Lammers and colleagues shows that the more powerful people are, the more hypocritical they become: they expect more of others and less of themselves. They set the bar higher for others and lower for themselves. For the less powerful participants the disparity between the judgment of their own behavior and that of others was only -0.1 (7.2 as compared to 7.3), whereas for the powerful participants the difference was +1.3 (7.6 compared to 6.3).
As shown in experiments described in previous chapters, this all comes down to the pictures (cognitive schemata) people have of power, influence and standing. If people are set up as influential, then this activates schemata consistent with this. One specific schema is that influential people have the right to judge others, to maintain order and standards. Judges, police officers and teachers are tasked with judging the behavior of others. Within organizations the management and supporting departments take on this task. With this responsibility people in influential positions are stricter in the judgment of others. That is one side of the coin. The other side is the schema that people in influential positions are more permissive towards themselves than those who are less influential. The more influence a person has, the more he places himself above others, such as his employees, in order to supervise their adherence to the rules. The management of the organization sets the rules which are carried out by employees and which the management again oversees. This feeds the image of the rules being less applicable to the influential person himself. After all, he does not belong to the party being supervised. Supervision requires distance. But by placing oneself above another party, one runs the risk of placing oneself above the legal and moral standards. That’s also why people in influential positions become gradually less sensitive to what others think; after all, the others are different.
The more influence someone has, the more privileges they have. This prompts people to acquire more influence. Privileges already acquired are grasped with both hands, not only because they are seen as a reward (for the responsibilities they bear), but also because they form proof of increased influence. This reasoning can give rise to the feeling that the more influence one has, the more unique one becomes. Influence is, after all, a rare commodity. The more influence one has, the more exceptional one is, and the more one can permit oneself. As a chairman of the board of a financial institution said, ‘Few people can do what I can do, just like few people can do what Justine Henin can do.’ This chairman said this at the point when the tennis star Henin had topped the world rankings for 117 weeks. Pride, however, comes before a fall, and soon afterwards the chairman was forced to leave. His optimistic view of the share price had stirred up a great deal of ill feeling with the shareholders. Furthermore, he had failed to pay out the promised dividend. He was even hypocritical enough to ask for a huge bonus for himself, in defiance of all procedures. And his golden parachute was in stark contrast to the great losses suffered by shareholders. All this prompted an association of securities holders to proclaim him the ‘biggest money grabber’ in the country.
Does this mean that absolute power corrupts absolutely, as is often said? Follow-up research by Lammers and colleagues fortunately offers a corrective. When people are unconscious of their power or think their power is undeserved, the opposite appears to be the case: they judge their own behavior more strictly than the behavior of others. This phenomenon is known as ‘hypercrisy’, a very critical judgment of oneself.
In order to avoid hypocrisy it is therefore important to think as little as possible of the power you have. Do not imagine that you stand above others, but rather under them: that is true servant leadership. Is that not exemplary role-modeling ?
(Crtsy: NK Sarvade)