Lately I’ve been listening to the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam. The most recent Hidden Brain episode had to do with power we have over others. It is a sort of unknown power because of how we orient our minds in relation to others. We tend to underestimate how likely it is that others will do what we ask of them. Some might recall the famous experiment where ‘teachers’ are asked to shock victims who answer questions incorrectly. In that case, they continued to send what they perceived to be very high voltage to subjects who didn’t answer questions correctly. They did this even though they believed it was wrong. They did it because the experimenter instructed them to do so.
Unlike past reflections on the famous ‘shocking’ experiment where researchers studied the ‘teacher’, this podcast focused on the experimenter and their power, not the ‘teacher’ who was being asked to send shocks. Focusing on the experimenter, we can’t help but ask, “Why did the ‘teacher’ do what the experimenter told them to? What was this power held by the experimenter? And is this kind of response to requests common?” Turns out it is.
As I listened to this podcast, I kept thinking about one thing. It might work in one event or experiment, but over time if a person runs into a situation where an experimenter continues to exert power over them, I’d say the relationship starts to erode to the point where it won’t work any more. The person who is experiencing the use of power over them might say, “Forget this!” Or would they?
As I reflect on those questions, I start to doubt whether the person being asked to do things would push back. We may not think it is the case, but our default mode is to do what we’re told, often without thinking critically about it.
An example of this is the social engineering trick where an attacker masquerades as someone’s boss. They send an email that looks like a message from someone in charge, like the CEO of a company. Once the message comes in, the critical thinking part of the recipient’s brain shuts down. Even though the message isn’t from the CEO, the power that the CEO holds over a company is fully leveraged in order to control the victim. This podcast focused on the power that equals have over each other and also the power that someone in a slight position of power might have over someone. But it didn’t focus on what happens when someone has considerable power over someone relative to the workplace hierarchy.
It made me wonder how many decisions made by people in power are being properly questioned and thoroughly vetted. Someone may be a CEO, but they are also human. And in many respects, since they are responsible for so many aspects of running a company, they can’t possibly have all the information they need to make good decisions. As a result, the greatest disservice their direct reports can do is follow orders without asking questions and getting clear about what is being asked.
Also in the podcast was the observation that folks in a position of power often don’t realize the power they have over others. When they don’t get questioned, they might actually start to believe that they are that good at making decisions. In fact, they’re not necessarily good at making decisions. Rather, they’re not aware of their own power.
It seems odd to suggest that not being aware of one’s own power over others is dangerous, but it is. They might say, “Well, you could have said, ‘no’,” when the person being asked to do something didn’t feel they had this power at all. Best we can do at work and in life is be aware of these power structures and make sure that we really are getting good information from people and that they are cooperating for the right reasons. And make sure that we aren’t just finding cooperation because of the power we unknowingly exert over others.