In society, power is highly coveted and highly protected. This remains true for the animal kingdom and human societies. Power remains the currency for success.
Nonetheless, the nature of power and the psychological effects it has will leave powerful people feeling lonely.
There are five ways in which power will pervert, contort, or undermine psychological processes which would normally nurture connections with others and form healthy relationships.
Power Changes Our Current Beliefs About Generosity From Others
When someone does something nice for us, we seek an explanation: Why are they helping? What motivation do they have?
Generally this process is so automatic that we do not notice it happening. However, in spite of its subtlety, it offers dramatic implications for the development of our relationships.
Generally, we believe that someone does nice things for us because they like us, care about us, or are a kind or trustworthy person.
However, if you have power, then you begin seeing that as an alternative for someone being nice to you. You start to think that you are the target and those who use kind words or nice actions are only seeking selfish goals. As such, those with power quickly become more suspicious of others. Those who have power over-apply the principle and as such, become increasingly suspicious of kind acts no matter the source, making it very difficult to retain loving and nurturing relationships.
Power Alters Responses to Kindness
Beliefs about the motivations of kind acts are responsible for disconnection because they create the responses to said kind acts.
One of the most primitive responses to generosity is to reciprocate. This is a social norm and a key component for relationships. It also creates equilibrium within societies.
However, people only reciprocate when they believe the motivation was for their benefit, not for an ulterior motive from the person doing the favor. For example, if you believe a colleague stayed late to help with a work assignment only to advance their career, you will be much less likely to return the favor.
People who have power are much less likely to reciprocate such favors believing that many favors are done because of selfish motives. By continually failing to reciprocate, however, you end up distancing yourself from your junior co-workers.
Power Will Reduce Trust
Trust is one of the cornerstones for effective social relationships. When you trust a person you believe that they will work and act in your best interest even if you are not around. When working, this can be incredibly beneficial as it means that you save time and effort and also trust that many people are there for you even when you are gone. Trust develops as part of a process where people exchange small vulnerabilities back and forth.
Power inhibits this process because it created mistrust of the kind acts of others. Those with power will generate a cynical attitude which leads them to fail to reciprocate their actions, not displaying any vulnerability, and as such, prohibiting the growth and development of a trusting relationship.
Power Will Reduce Commitment
In most personal relationships, such as marriages, income is the source of power. Those spouses who make more money often feel more powerful. Studies show that those who earn more than their spouse become increasingly suspicious of the motives by their spouse when offering favors. This has also lead to those who earn more feeling less connected to others and eventually less committed to their relationships.
Power Will Damage Relationships at Key Moments
The aforementioned relationship dynamics demonstrate the suspicion held by powerful people. Studies also show that those who have power do not necessarily feel suspicious of colleagues at all times, but primarily in moments when someone attempts to establish closeness by offering favors or generous acts.
Overall, this leaves those in power with a cynical psychological standpoint. They see favors as selfishly motivated, they refuse to reciprocate, trust is suffocated, and they feel less committed. These ideas contaminate psychological and social processes which leave the most powerful alone at the top.
What can be done?
Many of these things take place outside of an individual’s conscious awareness which means it is much more difficult to control. However, there are steps one can take to increase awareness of it.
For example, instead of acting instinctively and unconsciously making cynical conclusions, one can take a step back and try to active discern from where the generosity of others is coming. You can do this by looking for behavioral patterns, i.e. is the person always generous or have they only acted generously in the past when they want something.
It can also be beneficial to avoid carrying the feelings of power from one particular context in your life into another. As such, if you are taking a conference call at home with a subordinate, it might leave you feeling powerful, a behavioral trait which you then allow to affect your behavior with your spouse and children once the call is complete.
You can remember to alter this by shaking off the mindset you previously had and utilizing one which is appropriate to the current context. Remember to pause briefly and remind yourself of the process which takes place