Leaders everywhere are making their employees’ blood boil. Two recent cases were so egregious that they made headlines.

Andi Owen, a furniture company CEO, admonished her employees to “leave pity city” and stop worrying about whether they would get their bonuses. Tech CEO James Clarke, meanwhile, said those who are both full-time workers and full-time caregivers weren’t being “fair” to their companies (or children). In short, bosses are being positively infuriating – as they always have been.

It may seem like contentious words and aggressive actions are the key to successful leadership, and it can feel good to exert our will. But bad behavior eventually turns people away and leaves leaders out in the cold.

Shouting, insulting and threatening can leave considerable damage in its wake, leading to reduced creativity, poor job performance and negative attitudes about work. In the long run, aggressive and abusive approaches to leadership erode employee satisfaction and organizational commitment.

What workers want is a leader who inspires. For the past 20 years, I have been studying why so many leaders are infuriating, and why so few are ever truly inspiring. The key to understanding why leaders fall into the infuriation trap is the insidious partner of leadership: POWER.

Bosses can be so infuriating in part because of the large role they have in the lives of their employees. This broad power means leaders receive outsize amounts of attention, in which workers watch their bosses closely and intently – their behavior, words and expressions – giving them even more influence. The attention they receive, coupled with the power they wield, means their actions have an immediate and amplified impact on their employees. I call this the Leader Amplification Effect.

But here’s the thing: I’ve found in my research that leaders are often unaware that they are on a metaphorical stage. They overlook the fact that what they say and how they say it – their causal glances, their incidental shifts in posture – are intensely scrutinized and analyzed. They are blind to their outsized impact in shaping the psychological experience of others. In short, bosses think they are whispering, when their workers experience them as shouting.

The good news is that the Leader Amplification Effect isn’t a problem for bosses who recognize their impact and understand the power of their power. Unfortunately, though, it is their very power that often drains leaders of two of the most important qualities for a successful tenure: perspective and empathy.

Being in a position of power seems to reduce the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others. In one of my most well-known experiments, my collaborators and I randomly assigned half of our participants to be in a position of power by giving them control over an important resource, and we assigned the other half less power by making them depend on their partner for those resources.

Before interacting, we asked each person to draw a capital letter E on their forehead. Go ahead and try it for yourself. It turns out some people draw the E so it looks like an E to others; we call this an other-focused E. But some people draw the letter so it is an E from their perspective but backward to others; we call this the self-focused E.

Our experiment revealed that power dramatically affects the direction of the E. When people were randomly assigned to have power, they were almost three times more likely to draw the backward E. Power turned them into poor perspective-takers. In research with Keely Muscatell, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we have shown this effect in the brain: The neural circuitry that pays attention to others is less active when people have power.

But it gets worse. Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam has found that the powerful are less likely to feel compassion at the distress of others. It’s no wonder leaders call the concerns of others a pity party or refer to working parents as selfish.

If that wasn’t bad enough, leaders can tend to lash out at others like a trapped predator when feeling threatened. (While those without power may have the same emotions, those with power can actually act on them.) My research shows that just a touch of insecurity or the faintest whiff of disrespect can turn leaders into what I term Little Tyrants. In research with Maren Hoff, doctoral student at Columbia University, we have found that the powerful but insecure tend to hoard credit for success for themselves and refuse to share it with others. Not surprisingly, not receiving credit for one’s efforts is deeply infuriating.

In other research led by Nathaneal Fast of the University of Southern California, we gave participants a list of 10 activities and asked them to select the behaviors their partner had to complete to be eligible for the $50 prize. Half the behaviors were demeaning and humiliating, e.g., say ‘I am filthy’ 5 times. The other half were mild behaviors, e.g., tell the experimenter a funny joke.

We found that when people were randomly assigned to have power but their assigned position also lacked status and respect in the eyes of others, they were significantly more likely to dole out demeaning behaviors to others. By granting people power while simultaneously making them feel disrespected, we had turned our participants into Little Tyrants.

There is one final piece of the infuriation puzzle. My research with Joris Lammers of the University of Cologne has shown that power turns people into hypocrites: people who impose standards on others while violating those standards themselves. We found that this occurs because the powerful feel entitled to deviate from the rules while also feeling justified in demanding others follow those same rules. This is bad news, as leaders incite anger when they are hypocrites.

These infuriating tendencies have a culminating effect that places leaders further out of touch: They make people reluctant to speak up and share their perspectives. I call this the Power Silencing Effect. One’s power tends to muzzle the insights of others. And when people surrounding leaders don’t share their thoughts, leaders slip deeper into obliviousness.

So, what’s the solution? How can leaders move from being infuriating to being inspiring?

The first step is for leaders to be aware that they are always on stage. This awareness allows them to harness the Leader Amplification Effect to inspire others. For example, I’ve observed that when leaders intentionally praise others for their efforts, they are perceived as inspiring. Similarly, when they share success with others, they can turn those individuals into loyal followers.

The second step is to understand and reverse the Power Silencing Effect. As a leader, you will only get insights from others when you actively seek them out and you verbally and non-verbally express interest and encouragement. When your eyes betray contempt, the Power Silencing Effect becomes even stronger.

Every leader has the power to be inspiring. But their power often turns them into little tyrants. The solution is to get a little perspective.


This article was originally published by CNN.