Warning: Powerlessness May Be Dangerous to Your Brain – and Your Business

I remember reading an article another scientist sent me, essentially describing some research in the Netherlands. They conducted three ex­pe­ri­ments, putting Dutch uni­ver­s­ity stu­dents in dif­fer­ent sce­nar­i­os de­signed to make them feel ei­ther dom­i­nant or sub­or­di­nate in ‘rank’. They were then asked to perform think­ing tasks, such as solving puzzles. 

The ‘pow­erless’ ones had trouble plan­ning, up­dat­ing a men­tal pic­ture, and ignor­ing ir­rel­e­vant in­forma­t­ion, the authors reported, attributing this to the fact that low power people are not expected to fo­cus on the over­all goals. Con­sist­ent with this interpretation were the results of a fourth ex­pe­ri­ment. This one us­ed a game de­signed so that it would re­main easy to fo­cus on the task goal. It wasn’t mo­tiva­t­ion that was the problem. The less powerful participants re­ported put­ting in as much ef­fort as oth­ers, the re­search­ers said. It was self-perception of low power. And, I suspect, the long term results of the perception of powerlessness are even more damaging, given the way the brain works.

Whatever happened to the idea of empowering workers? Especially now, when competition for highly skilled employees is high and predicted to rise? Yet more and more I hear people talk about structuring jobs to be exactly what is needed by the company – forget what the employee needs. Wake up call: organizations can’t afford to play zero-sum games any more. Command and control just takes the company’s human assets and chews them into tiny bits of useless action, uncoordinated by any vision. And likely the effect is long lasting.

I want a smarter world, one with more vision, more power, more mastery, more innovation, more excellence. Ok, that may not motivate you. But what if all the people whose brains lose power because of managerial abuse in your organization put in Workers Comp claims?

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