Yes, Power Corrupts, But Power Also Reveals
To illustrate, imagine that you’re escorted to an office. You sit down, and you learn that you and a partner will need to complete ten tasks. Since your partner is running late, it’s up to you to pick five tasks for yourself. You get to delegate the other five tasks to your partner. Some of the tasks are very short. Others will require much more time. Will you act like a taker, claiming the short tasks for yourself and leaving your partner stuck with the long ones? Or will you be a giver, doing the time-consuming work and letting your partner off the hook?
It depends on where you’re sitting. In a fascinating study led by the psychologist Serena Chen, people filled out a survey to determine whether they tended to approach interactions like givers or takers. When they arrived for the study, they were ushered into either a powerful or powerless seat. The powerful seat was a chair behind an imposing desk. The powerless seat was a guest chair in front of the desk. When sitting in the powerless seat, the takers acted like givers. They pretended to be generous, volunteering for the time-consuming tasks and leaving the short tasks for their partners. In daily life, this is a strategy that takers use for impressing those above them, in the interest of gaining authority and influence.
When they were sitting in the powerful seat, the takers revealed their true colors. They grabbed the shortest tasks, sticking the givers with the lion’s share of the work.
Power frees us from the chains of conformity. As a team of psychologists led by Adam Galinsky finds, “power psychologically protects people from influence.” Because powerful people have plenty of resources, they don’t need to worry as much about the negative consequences of expressing their values. For givers, power is associated with responsibility to others. This means that power often grants givers the latitude to help others without worrying about exploitation by takers or sheer exhaustion. For takers, on the other hand, power is a license to advance their own interests.