In light of Mark Hurd’s resignation from Hewlett-Packard due to ethics violations, author Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting analysis for the Wall Street Journal on the abuse of power. Although he was quick to point out that psychological research indicates it is people who are most likable that get put in positions of power, that’s only half of the story. “The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power,” Lehrer wrote.
I personally have no problem coming up with many stories of the abuse of power, stories in which I was the victim. But it’s much harder to remember, in times of frustration, that I just might be dealing with a real person, a lot like me.
In fact, as humans we have an unfortunate tendency to justify bad decisions and hurtful acts. For countless examples, just read Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts written by Dr. Elliot Aronson and Dr. Carol Tavris.
What are solutions to the ongoing problem of corruption and the abuse of power? Jonah Lehrer describes transparency as an antidote. Wouldn’t you be less likely to do something you know is wrong if people were watching? Working a system of oversight into the program if you find yourself in a position of power is a good way of doing this–instead of stacking a board with friends and yes-men, surround yourself with people you respect who are not afraid to disagree with you.
A nice dose of humility and critical self-analysis are also in order, though it’s very easy to trick ourselves into believing we’re doing this when we’re not, or to justify such things as necessary for others but not for moral, upright citizens such as ourselves. It’s challenging to accommodate for a self-justification so shrewd we fail to see it, but having systems in place for this inevitable occurrence may be just the trick we need.
Got any other ideas? Leave ’em in the comments.