“It is much safer to be feared than loved,” Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince,” a 16th-century treatise advocating manipulation and even cruelty as the means to power.
For effective leadership in the 21st century, is that still true? Is it better to be feared or loved?
The Machiavellian approach is still being vigorously advocated today–in, for example, Robert Greene’s best-selling “The 48 Laws of Power” which suggests among other strategies the following:
- Law 12–Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victim.
- Law 15–Crush Your Enemy Totally.
- Law 18–Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability.
Yet since the 1600s, the interdependence of humans in hierarchies, along with increasing social intelligence, has made a person’s power often only as strong as is acknowledged by others. As Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, puts it in his article “The Power of Kindness”: “We give power to those who can best serve the interests of the group. Leaders who treat their subordinates with respect, share power, and generate a sense of camaraderie and trust are considered more just and fair…. power is wielded most effectively when it’s used by people who are attuned to and engaged with the needs and interests of others.”
A widely-heralded article on leadership in the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, authors of “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential,” elaborates on that view. The authors have found that “When we judge others—especially our leaders—we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence). Although there is some disagreement about the proper labels for the traits, researchers agree that these are the two primary dimensions of social judgment.” And evidently these two attributes account for more than 90% of the impressions we form of people.
While leaders today tend to emphasize their competence and credentials in the workplace, “that is exactly the wrong approach,” they say. Research suggests effective leadership begins with warmth. In one study of 51,836 leaders, only a handful of leaders rated in the bottom quarter in terms of likability were also in the top quarter in terms of overall leadership effectiveness. “In other words, the chances that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered a good leader are only about one in 2,000,” according to the HBR authors.
“Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals—a nod, a smile, an open gesture—can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.”
The authors make several suggestions as to how to physically convey warmth, including moderating voice pitch and volume to a more intimate level, verbally recognizing others’ feelings, and genuinely smiling. Even poses–taking a casual stance, leaning towards others, opening your arms and raising your chin–help project interest and openness.
These psychologists’ conclusions about the importance of warmth seem consistent with those of a rising star in the organizational psychology world. Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has the highest course evaluation ratings of any teacher and has never taught a class that didn’t win an Excellence in Teaching Award. As his profile with the American Psychological Association says, Grant’s new book “‘Give and Take’ (which is, naturally, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller)… makes a compelling case that you don’t have to be ruthless to get ahead at work. Instead, he says, techniques such as doing ‘five-minute favors’ for others and reconnecting with loose acquaintances can reap long-term career rewards.”
The March 27, 2013 New York Times Magazine cover story entitled “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” is devoted to Grant’s research. “’Give and Take’ incorporates scores of studies and personal case histories that suggest the benefits of an attitude of extreme giving at work. Many of the examples — the selfless C.E.O.’s, the consultants who mentor ceaselessly — are inspiring and humbling…. The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other people’s lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves… Employers can advance their businesses by tapping into people’s kindheartedness…”
Grant, whose father is a lawyer and mother is a teacher, identifies three types of workers–givers, matchers and takers. As the NYT Magazine article explains, “Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…. The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect…”
There are some young lawyers out there working for hard-boiled litigators who may be questioning the “giving-your-way-to-success” approach. Grant cautions against indiscriminate giving. “The givers who end up succeeding are the ones who are careful to say, ‘I’m going to be clear about who I want to help and when and how I want to help them…’ [S]uccessful givers are much more likely to focus their giving on fellow givers and matchers, becoming a little more cautious when dealing with takers. It can be pretty risky to help takers who are willing to take advantage of you.”
So we have good if surprising evidence that warmth and giving are successful strategies for both becoming a leader and being effective at leading. The conundrum comes in the research that documents the changes that frequently occur in the transition from being named a leader to exercising the power that is attendant with that position. Evidently power, as the saying goes, does tend to corrupt. And while effective leaders are also most often the warm and giving ones, a disturbing metamorphosis can occur on the way to effective leadership.
Keltner makes the implications of the transition clear. “When given power in scientific experiments, people quickly are more likely to physically touch others in potentially inappropriate ways, to flirt more directly, to make risky choices, to make first offers in negotiations, to speak their mind, and to eat cookies like the Cookie Monster, with crumbs all over their chins and chests.
“Perhaps more unsettling is the wealth of evidence that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, speak out of turn, and fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating ways. Surveys of organizations find that most rude behaviors—shouting, profanities, bald critiques—emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power.
“My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal cortex (the region of the frontal lobe right above and behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior.
“This leaves us with a power paradox. Power is given to those individuals, groups, or nations who advance the interests of the greater good in socially intelligent fashion. Yet, having power renders many individuals as poorly attuned to others as your garden-variety frontal lobe patient. What people want from leaders—social intelligence—is what is damaged by the experience of power.”
Keltner recommends that organizations set clear expectations of what types of behavior merit promotions and then enforce those expectations once people are promoted, all the way to the top.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation comes to mind: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”