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Professor Adam Galinsky delivers a May 3, 2008, lecture about how power can influence psychology and management decisions. His MBA Update was one of seven sessions offered by Kellogg faculty during the school's Reunion weekend.

How power shapes executive choice

At Reunion 2008, Prof. Adam Galinsky’s MBA Update explores power and leadership, creativity and cultural diversity

By Aubrey Henretty

5/7/2008 - Do the powerful and the powerless approach problems differently? How does power distort perception? What can a strategically placed desk fan reveal about the power of experience (and the experience of power)?

For answers to these and other cognitive conundrums, alumni checked in with Adam Galinsky, the Kellogg School’s Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management. Galinsky spent the first portion of his May 3 lecture — one of several MBA Update sessions held during Reunion 2008 — discussing his research on power and leadership through the lens of social psychology.

“Power transforms the way people think and makes them take action in the environment,” Galinsky said during the two-hour intensive class, designed to give Reunion participants fresh leadership insights. The effect of power on the psyche is so pronounced, he noted, that merely recalling a situation in which one felt powerful can spur that person into action.

Galinsky and research colleagues have documented this effect through a variety of experiments. In one, subjects were asked to sit at a table and write about an experience in which they felt powerful or powerless. When they sat down to work, subjects found themselves uncomfortably close to a whirring tabletop fan. Approximately 40 percent of people who were recalling their low-power experiences moved the fan or turned it off. Among the high-power group, the percentage nearly doubled.

Another experiment tested the influence of high- or low-power recall on the “bystander effect.” Galinsky’s team found that subjects in the high-power group were nearly three times as likely as those in the low-power group to be the first to offer help to a stranger in distress.

Powerful people tend to take more risks and focus on the potential payoffs, said Galinsky, but he warned that the actions of the powerful are not always helpful or altruistic. Powerful people are also more likely to objectify others and less likely to evaluate situations from different perspectives. Galinsky invoked the corrupt leadership of the defunct Enron Corp. as a prime example of power-distorted thinking run amok: “As [CEO] Ken Lay knew that the world was crumbling around Enron, he was still encouraging employees to keep all their pensions in Enron stock.”

So when does power make a good leader great? “Maybe,” said Galinsky, “it’s when power and perspective-taking combine.”

Galinsky concluded his MBA Update with a discussion of one way to increase the “perspective-taking” elasticity of the mind. His recent research — including a paper co-authored with Angela Ka-yee Leung (Singapore Management University), William Maddux (INSEAD) and Chi-yue Chiu (University of Illinois), which appeared in the April 2008 issue of American Psychologist — suggests that people who immerse themselves in other cultures are more creative than people who do not. In particular, he said, people who have lived abroad are better able to appreciate the different functions of a single form.