Avoiding the Power Trap

Learning How to Wield Gracious Power

Prof. Sukhvinder Obhi

Power is a central feature in contemporary news headlines, and social commentators constantly analyze its corrupting effects. Often, the corrupting power that they refer to is wielded by men and, in particular, white men. Given this, it’s easy to see how people could think that what I like to call poisonous power—power that does social damage—is a white male problem. This is wrong: poisonous power can afflict anyone, and its deleterious effects can be especially pernicious for women of color who hold leadership positions.

Luckily, power is not always poisonous. Power is the ability to influence the states of others, and to inspire their actions. Gracious power, what I consider to be the opposite of poisonous power, can be a force for good. Gracious power is when leaders use their influence to create an inclusive and psychologically safe climate. It can help shape prosocial and inclusive cultural norms and can elevate people to be the best versions of themselves.

Unfortunately, despite the possibility of gracious power, the psychological and neuroscientific research shows that power too often can be poisonous. Poisonous power can promote behavior that is self-interested and exclusionary. It can harm key social competencies that bind diverse people together, and in so doing, it can undermine psychological safety and a sense of common purpose. It can reduce individuation, empathy, and perspective taking, promote impulsive behavior, increase risk taking, and impair inclusive communication. These effects of poisonous power can create the “power trap” that ensnares unwitting power holders, damaging them and those around them. You may wonder what all this has to do with women of color. The answer is everything.

A robust feature of human perception is that we pay attention to things that differ from the norm. Make no mistake: as a woman of color in a leadership position, you are constantly under the microscope. Increased scrutiny brings both challenge and opportunity. The challenge is that your tiniest mistakes are seen and amplified. If a woman of color in leadership succumbs even slightly to poisonous power and falls into the power trap, the reputational damage can be severe. Given the human tendency to homogenize outgroups, the reputational effects of poisonous power are not limited to a single person. That is, poisonous power can not only lead a particular woman of color into the power trap and damage perceptions of her competence, but can also damage how other women of color in the organization are seen.

So, where’s the opportunity in all this? It starts with awareness. Be aware of the potential for poisonous power and choose and use gracious power instead. Be constantly mindful of leading inclusively and supporting your team members while respecting their uniqueness and fostering a sense of common purpose. Empower people to become the best version of themselves. This requires the core social competencies of individuation, empathy, perspective taking, inclusive communication, and self-regulation. Remember, power is the ability to influence the states of others. Using it with awareness and grace provides an antidote to poison and helps avoid the power trap while uplifting those around you. DW

Professor Sukhvinder Obhi is the director of the Neurosociety Lab at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

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