Boss Doesn't Listen, Because He's the Boss

Boss not listening to you?

Maybe it's because he's the boss.

A new study indicates that a sense of power makes one less likely to take other people seriously, and less able "to comprehend how other people see, think and feel."

The study is the latest in a long line of research on personal power, probably dating back to when the first caveman picked up a club and announced he was in charge. Why do people seek it, what does it do to them and how does it affect those around them?

Well, sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's bad.

"Power leads people to take more action, it leads them to take more risks, and sometimes risks are a good thing," says social psychologist Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. But it also tends to make them disregard the perspectives of those below them.

So in itself, power is not a bad thing, says Galinsky, lead author of a report on the research in the December issue of Psychological Science. But it needs a little help.

"Power is like a gas pedal," he says. "But what you need, so you don't crash, is a good steering wheel." And one way to get that steering wheel, he says, is to pay attention to the opinions and feelings of subordinates.

It sounds like it ought to be pretty easy, but the research by Galinsky and his colleagues suggests that it isn't.

"Power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others' perspectives," the researchers conclude.

That's consistent with findings by many others, but the researchers wanted to get right down to the bare bones and see if the mere suggestion of power influences how people react to others. So they recruited a bunch of college students on different campuses and conducted four experiments.

In one experiment, 57 undergraduates (41 women and 16 men) were divided into two groups. Members of one group were told to write an essay about a time when they had some degree of personal power over someone else. The others were told to write about a time when someone else had control over them.

Then each participant was given a felt pen and told to write the letter "E" on his or her forehead. This is an experiment that has been conducted several times in different ways in recent years, and while it may sound silly, it offers important clues as to how the subject perceives others.

Here's what happened:

Most of the participants who had been "primed" to think of themselves as powerful, because they had just written an essay on power they had once had, scribbled an "E" on their forehead that was backwards. As seen by someone else, the legs of the "E" go in the wrong direction.

That's because the empowered participants drew the letter as it would appear to them, not to others.

And the participants who were not empowered drew the letter so it could be readily understood by someone else. It was clearly an "E." So the perspective of others was far more important to those participants without power than it was to those with power.

The researchers concluded that you don't really have to have a lot of power to be a bit of a power monger. Even the suggestion will push you in that direction.

Interestingly, that appears to be largely a cultural condition. Galinsky has conducted other research in Asia, and he says Asians deal with the notion of power quite differently than Americans. In word-association experiments in the United States, he says, study participants linked power with action and leadership, whereas in Asia it was linked more often with words associated with responsibility.

"In the United States, power is associated with taking risks and taking chances and focusing on goals, and so all that leads people to be a little bit more egocentrically focused on their own desires," Galinsky says. "The United States is an independent culture (where we do our own thing) but in East Asia they are interdependent cultures."

In this country, "you get this egocentric focus," he adds, whereas in Asia there is a sort of cultural conditioning for paying attention to the ideas of others.

So here we are, a power-hungry bunch of upwardly mobile cutthroats, unwilling to tune in to the thoughts and emotions of those below us? Well, not quite, Galinsky says.

That's probably less true with each step up the ladder, he adds. If bosses don't learn how to listen to others, he says, they are less likely to be promoted, and thus power becomes only one part of the equation. Skill and listening to others also play parts. If they can't play the game right, show them the door.

"The inverse relationship between power and perspective taking (listening to others) may allow the powerful to accomplish short-term goals but lead to the long-term loss of power," the researchers conclude.

So like that old expression goes, be nice to them on the way up, because you may meet them on the way down.