Peter J Minich, MD, Ph.D, MAPP ’06 is author of Rethinking Power in Healthcare: What to do when Authority Fails and Patients Suffer. He is a practicing surgeon in Toronto Canada. He teaches leadership to leaders from all walks of life, in all parts of the world. Visit Peter’s Web site. Full bio.
Peter’s articles are here.
The image of a powerful organizational leader conjures up an archetype of strength, knowledge, and wisdom. It makes us think of a leader who knows the right thing to do and does it. The rest of us are happy to follow along. Certainly the doctor who mobilizes an operating team to save a patient fits these classic notions of power.
Drawbacks of Power
But that kind of power can have immense drawbacks. In a series of experiments, researcher Nathaniel Fast and colleagues have found that power can give people an illusory sense of control over outcomes, when these outcomes may be beyond the reach of any individual. This illusion of control can lead to unrealistic optimism and inflated egos. Research by Fast and Larissa Tiedens gives insight into the contagious spread of blame when things then do go wrong. People get busy protecting their self-images. Even observing someone blaming someone else for a mistake can result in people turning around and blaming others for completely unrelated problems.
What happens, for example, when a doctor concludes that real organizational power is achieved by abandoning the notion that power comes from position, hierarchy, in other words, authority, believing instead that lasting influence comes from a leader’s social intelligence and inherent strengths such as empathy, humility, and perhaps even egolessness? How does a leader grow psychological safety within the organization?
These are, I believe, the critical themes to consider as leaders who were accustomed to being listened to, suddenly find themselves without an obedient audience, paddling upstream in floundering organizations. Our organizations are being asked to deal with extremely complex challenges in a very difficult fiscal climate. Our organizations are also filled with committed people with varied beliefs, strengths, and ideas; in other words, talent. These people also have the energy and thus power to support or sabotage leadership.
Now is the time for leaders to rethink their own notions of power, and build new behaviors that help, rather than hinder their leadership. With a simple framework, habits that build influence can be learned and practiced. Core strengths are at the heart of the matter, and these can be amplified with time and practice. Positive, competitive, and innovative environments and psychological safety come from leaders who learn to listen.
Fast, N., Gruenfeld, D., Sivanathan, N., & Galinsk, A. (2009). Illusory control: A generative force behind power’s far-Reaching effects. Psychological Science, 20(4), 502-508.
Fast, N. (2010). How to stop the blame game. Harvard Business Review blog.
Fast, N. & Tiedens, L. (2010). Blame contagion: The automatic transmission of self-serving attributions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 97-106.
Minich, P. J. (2009). Rethinking Power in Healthcare: What to do when Authority Fails and Patients Suffer. Lulu Publishing.
Minich, P. J. & Deal, T. (2003). Sick Patients Sicker System: How Clinician Leaders Become System Healers. Peter Minich Publishing.
Britton, K. H. (2010). Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility. PPND.
Britton, K. H. (2010). Relational Coordination: Learning not Blame. PPND.
Surgeon Leader courtesy of Andy G