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The Missing Leadership Ingredient: Balancing Power and Perspective

November 10, 2014

By: Terri Williams

In most organizational failures, whether it’s in corporate America, the government, the pee-wee football team, or the local church, there’s usually one common denominator: everyone but the leader(s) knew there was a problem, and usually, at least one person sounded an alarm, but it was silenced or ignored.

That’s because power has a funny way of seducing leaders into thinking that they are infinitely more intelligent, shrewd, and wise than they really are. And as a result, some leaders tend to dismiss the opinions of others, which can lead to less than desirable results.

Columbia Business School recently published a report that reveals that leaders who fail to consider the opinions and perspectives of their audiences are more likely to make bad decisions than leaders who try to view the situation from the perspective of others.

According to Adam Galinsky, a professor of business management at Columbia Business School, and one of the study’s authors, “Effective leadership is like a successful car ride. To go places, you need gas and acceleration – power is a psychological accelerator. But you also need a good steering wheel so you don’t crash as you speed down the highway – perspective-taking is that psychological steering wheel.” And according to Galinsky, leaders are bound to crash when they don’t consider the viewpoints of others.

The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, has three key points:

  • Power diminishes perspective-taking: it causes leaders to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspectives.
  • Perspective-taking alone is not enough: leaders who tend to focus too intently on what others think often lack the ability to assert themselves and make changes.
  • Power + perspective-taking = an effective leader: Those who can balance power and perspective-taking are more likely to handle difficult situations more successfully.

There are several reasons why those who merge power and perspective-taking tend to be more effective leaders. Their decisions tend to demonstrate a higher level of respect and fairness. These leaders are less likely to make selfish decisions that would negatively impact others.

These leaders are also more likely to facilitate information-sharing. They want to get the facts before they make a decision, and they also want everyone involved to know how and why they reached their decision.

Now depending on the leader, merging power and perspective-taking may be easy, moderately difficult, or darn-near impossible, and the ability to assimilate the two is a defining leadership characteristic. For example, there are some leaders who already balance power and perspective-taking when they make decisions. There are other leaders who may not have been knowledgeable of the importance of combining these two to produce synergistic results, and they merely need professional development training in these areas so they can start implementing this practice.

But there’s a third group of leaders who have no interest in considering the perspectives of others, or facilitating information-sharing. Unfortunately, these leaders could be compared to doctors who have a God complex. They believe that their elevated position provides them with special privileges and unquestionable rights. These are the types of leaders who would unblinkingly lay off elderly members of the company’s cleaning and maintenance department to create enough money in the budget to hire a girlfriend or frat brother.

These leaders want to blame the sales team for its inability to sell the company’s product. Never mind that it’s a poorly-made product that is priced too high, and the research shows that there is not even a demand for the product. No, it must be the sales team’s fault. Clearly these leaders have no desire to hear or consider other perspectives, because everyone else exists solely for their benefit.

Companies that want to be successful must weed out these types of leaders, and they must ensure that their leadership teams – on every level – are staffed by people who are comfortable, but not cocky – in their leadership ability.

Just because you have the right to make a decision doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to make the right decision. In a global economy with heightened levels of competition, bad decisions must be minimized, and one way to achieve this goal is by understanding the importance of considering other perspectives during the decision-making process.

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Terri Williams

Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, working with a large nonprofit organization. Her business, education, and lifestyle articles have appeared in various online publications including Yahoo, USA Today, The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report University Directory, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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