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Are Leaders Better Liars than the Rest of Us?

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Powerful liars.

Leaders with scant regard for any kind of ethical code.

We all have our own favorite examples of corrupt leaders, and they can be found in almost every sector of society—from the corporate world to the political realm to the guy in charge of your kid’s Little League. Wherever you look, you find evidence that proves the maxim: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But is it as easy as that? Is there a chicken/egg question that we’re missing here? To wit: is it power that causes otherwise honest men and women (although, let’s face it—it’s usually men) to lie and act unethically, or do unethical liars simply do a better job at climbing the ladder?

One recent study–still under peer review–suggests that those in positions of power are much better at lying than those in relatively powerless positions.  Consider the following quotes from an article discussing the preliminary results of the study:

“Power, it seems, enhances the same emotional, cognitive, and physiological systems that lie-telling depletes. People with power enjoy positive emotions, increases in cognitive function, and physiological resilience such as lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Thus, holding power over others might make it easier for people to tell lies.”

And:

“Low-power individuals showed the expected emotional, cognitive, physiological, and behavioral signs of deception; in contrast, powerful people demonstrated no evidence of lying across emotion, cognition, physiology, or behavior,” the study found. “In other words, power acted as a buffer allowing the powerful to lie significantly more easily … and more effectively. Only low-power individuals felt badly after lying.”

Reading that, it would be very easy to conclude that power does corrupt absolutely. But here’s the thing: the study also found that “[p]ower did not shift participants’ sense of morality. All believed lying was wrong,” and the study found “no differences” in terms of moral sense between liars and truth tellers at either end of the power scale.

So to sum up: power enables people with the propensity for immoral behavior (lying) to do so more easily, but it doesn’t shift their sense of morality (people who believe something is wrong will continue to do so even in a position of power). Which suggests that those individuals we keep reading about after their high-profile falls from grace—the Madoffs and Blagojeviches of the world—were the result of power magnifying the effects of moral compasses that were already skewed.

The most striking finding of the study is that being in a position of power—even a false one created for the purposes of testing—creates a “stress buffer” that allows people to do things, both positive and negative, without feeling the same effects as those without power. Thus, risk-taking, public speaking and, yes, lying, all become easier.

There are many questions for businesses to consider from such results: first (and perhaps most important) is whether it’s possible to identify people likely to abuse power before you hand it to them. Second, companies may also want to consider ways to limit their leaders from feeling like they have a great deal of power—whether through increased accountability measures or other means. And, finally, companies should also consider the trade-off: while limiting someone’s sense of power may make sense in curbing potential bad behavior, it may also limit their willingness to take on risk and ultimately impact their ability to effect change and success.

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