Psychological Impacts of Gaining New Leadership Roles

Research has found that people experience cognitive changes when they assume positions of power. As younger generations assume global leadership positions, they need to understand the changes, get regular feedback, and have plenty of opportunities to connect with organizational members.
— By Dave Desouza

Global leaders are in demand, but what exactly is implied by “global leader?” Technology has shortened the distance between managers and between employees and managers around the world, enabling communication and information sharing with ease. Yet, a true global leader is someone who thinks beyond the position of power and understands their role as unifier, despite any physical distance that exists in the workforce, and the importance of using power productively.

When people are promoted from a frontline position into a leadership position, many factors come into play, including cognitive changes. The brain manages newly assigned power in predictable ways, according to neuroscientists, and feelings of isolation can complicate the response even more. The end results are increased business risks that include less willingness to embrace diverse perspectives as a means of control and managers feeling isolated.

Psychological Impacts of Power
Digital tools enable people to stay connected no matter where they are located, but there is a down side, too. They lead to fewer meaningful interactions between people, which can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation.

When someone is promoted from a staff or frontline position to a leadership position in a global organization, two major factors come into play. One is the biological response to increased power, and the other is the constant struggle to stay connected with the organization as a whole.

Personal interactions between global leaders are most often via the internet, phone calls, email and social media. The challenge senior leaders have is ensuring the newly promoted frontline employees have the appropriate leadership skills, and they do not misuse their new authority and put the organization at risk.

There are psychological impacts of power. Pamela Smith, an associate professor of management at the University of California, San Diego, studies power, status, and influence and how the level of power affects the way people think, feel and behave.

Smith's research has revealed some interesting things. Power changes the way people process their situations and the world around them. People working in staff positions are thinking in terms of the day's assignments and work that must be completed by the end of the week. When they are promoted, they must now think about long-term strategic plans, higher goals, and more abstract information, and they often allow staff to do their work without always knowing how the work gets done.

Research by Smith and others found that assuming power leads people to consider other people's perspectives less, be more optimistic about risky decisions, develop a sense of control over what will happen, reduces the perception of threat, and increases the anticipation of reward.

The risks are real. Accumulated research has found cognitive effects explain workplace harassment, for example. People who gain power do not have to think as much about what others are thinking and have less empathy for other people's situations.

Losing Empathy
A new leader who does not recognize or know how to manage the new perspective that goes with being a manager with power may not even recognize the cognitive changes taking place. They may think they have the same concern for others, but they do not.

Developing leadership skills in new leaders is crucial, but they also need to not feel isolated.
It is ironic that people learn to read others as they strive to advance, but once in power, they lose much of that ability according to neuroscientists. Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi at McMaster University in Ontario found in his study of brains that power impairs mirroring, a neural process needed for empathy. Mirror neurons in the brain enable people to feel attuned to others’ intentions and feelings.

Promoting people without giving them appropriate skills training is a recipe for problems. They must recognize the changes going on in their perspectives and thinking processes in order to get desired outcomes. They need to know how to connect with, motivate and influence others. Research at the Kellogg School of Management found that people in power are more likely to misunderstand the viewpoints of people who lack authority and have more difficulty interpreting the emotional expressions of others.

Blending Technology and Human Interactions
Developing leadership skills in new leaders is crucial, but they also need to not feel isolated. As more people from younger generations advance in their careers to become managers, there is a real risk they are not prepared for what this entails in terms of cognitive changes that drive behaviors. Digital natives may see technology as the great unifier, but they soon discover as managers that they need to create an environment of teamwork and constantly learn and interact with role models and senior leaders.

One approach is to first develop global leaders by setting leadership expectations, which includes being open-minded to different cultures, perspectives, opinions and ways of completing tasks.

Development should not be focused only on meeting goals without addressing emotional intelligence. Young leaders need hyper-collaboration which means having access to other people across the organization. There should not be silos. Get managers together frequently by using online meeting technologies just to share information, ask questions, and get encouragement.

Younger leaders also benefit from regular contact with senior leaders who reinforce their belief in the new leadership talent, offer insights and feedback, and reinforce values. It is critical that regular feedback is given so the person can grow in their leadership role.

Power of the Brain and Feedback
The one thing that should not be done is promoting frontline people and assuming they are fully prepared to manage without additional development. They need interaction with other leaders and opportunities to access leadership skills development events.

New leaders also need to understand how their new positions of power are impacting them cognitively so they realize how they manage the cognitive changes will impact their efforts to connect with staff.

Making sure they do not feel isolated is really a matter of making the effort to regularly connect. Some companies make sure each manager also physically visits headquarters several times a year. This benefits the global manager and the organization because nothing trumps personal interactions for developing emotional intelligence and cultural training.