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New leaders: Beware the “Pumbavu Effect”

Sep 21, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“Consider the “cookie experiment” reported by the psychologists Dacher Keltner, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson in 2003. In this study, teams of three students each were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members of each team were randomly assigned to write the paper. The third member evaluated it and determined how much the other two would be paid, in effect making them subordinates. About 30 minutes into the meeting, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies—a welcome break that was in fact the focus of the experiment. No one was expected to reach for the last cookie on the plate, and no one did. Basic manners dictate such restraint. But what of the fourth cookie—the extra one that could be taken without negotiation or an awkward moment? It turns out that a little taste of power has a substantial effect. The “bosses” not only tended to take the fourth cookie but also displayed signs of “disinhibited” eating, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs widely.”

Robert I. Sutton, Harvard Business Review (June 2009)

Robert Sutton is an excellent writer, an academic who gets down to basics in his studies of the workplace. His recent piece in HBR was well worth reading for anyone interested in leadership and organisation.

I was particularly tickled by the excerpt shown, detailing a famous experiment. In Sutton’s words: “It’s a cute little experiment, but it beautifully illustrates a finding consistent across many studies. When people – independent of personality – wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them.

To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality”—the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership.”

Hear, hear. Anyone who has observed leaders in action ( I have been doing it for two decades) knows that many of them fall victim to the “power poisoning” Sutton refers to. The minute leadership is bestowed on some no-mark, he or she immediately assumes a halo of superiority. Nothing has changed – our person is no more knowledgeable, no more skilful, no more wise than he was a day earlier – but the very fact that he is now called a leader and others report to him makes him lose his sense of reality.

In Kenyan politics, we see this in spades. Just make someone, anyone, an MP, a councillor or, heaven forbid, a cabinet minister, and watch their heads rise into the clouds. Suddenly, the “pumbavu effect” kicks in and all followers (including recently respected colleagues) become imbeciles who know nothing and must be ignored. Suddenly, the newly crowned leader will become difficult to meet and even more difficult to influence. Most fatally, the leader starts to imagine that only he understands certain things and becomes impervious to good counsel.

Unfortunately, this behaviour is also prevalent in the private sector. Once they enjoy the trappings and aura of leadership, many chief executives become all-too-willing to believe in their unique talent.

True leadership is something very different. It is focused on the followers, not on the self, and aims to draw the best out of them. The real leader assumes responsibility for the betterment of others, and uses her powerful position to create transformative change. The bosses who snatch the fourth (and fifth) cookie are too common, and they are holding us all back.

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