This is your CEO’s brain. This is your CEO’s brain on power. And this is what you can do about it.

By Deanna Cioppa
The Brief
Positions of authority can change a person for good or ill. Strong organizational networks and flexible structures can curb leaders whose behavior takes a turn for the worse. 

Tales of how power corrupts peppered civilization’s oral and written history long before there were bank execs and political blowhards for talking heads to skewer. But even as science has confirmed that power certainly can confer a negative effect, all the way down to the biological level, studies also have shown that its influence can be mitigated by the counterweight of an organization’s relationship capital. 

Power’s effect on brain chemistry is similar to that caused by cocaine: it causes an increase in dopamine uptake that enhances egocentricity and diminishes empathy. Those personality tweaks drive abstract and strategic thought and prompt risk-taking, but they also skew judgment. From an organizational perspective, that sounds like one step forward and two steps back.

Turns out, though, that egocentric tendencies can also be harnessed to bolster the organizational good. The same study that showed that when leaders dominate conversations among their team they lower overall performance. It also found that it was the formality of the authority role itself rather than the person in it that “determined team members’ willingness to acquiesce to this dominant behavior.” Curbing domineering tendencies was often as simple as reminding leaders that theirs wasn’t the only opinion in the room.

The study goes on to suggest that “flat organizational structures” can help address this power imbalance. Where hierarchy is entrenched, though, relationship capital becomes a more critical tool. A strong internal network can overcome the negative effects of a domineering executive by fostering open communication both horizontally and vertically and by creating a collaborative environment that highlights valuable insights wherever they come from. According to research published in Organization Science, leaders who utilize the social capital of their organization preempt the “stifling effects of power and status on collective learning.” In fact, the researchers found that leaders who think more socially actually stimulate collective learning within their organizations.

The Takeaway: If you’re dealing with a domineering CEO, mitigate the tyranny by strengthening and utilizing the network of employees below him or her, and as researchers suggest, create a system that reminds your CEO how valuable the skills and insights from their employees are to the organization.

Deanna Cioppa is a freelance writer who has written for AARP, ESPN The Magazine and Fodor’s. She is a frequent contributor to this blog.
RelSci is a technology solutions company that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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