Lonely at the top? Do me a favour!

People in positions of power become cynical about the motives of their colleagues. And that means they think less of themselves


We’ve all heard celebrities and life’s highest flyers complain that ‘it’s lonely at the top’. It’s tempting to think - uncharitably, perhaps - ‘too bad, so sad’; after all, feeling isolated in this way is the price of achieving fame and power beyond the reach and imagination of the vast majority of us. But might it also affect people whose success and influence is less visible and exotic?

The path to achieving any sort of power usually involves getting on well with others, listening to their points of view, and showing them they’re valued and appreciated – characteristics necessary to building and maintaining strong relationships. However, after power has been bestowed, these attractive and trust-building virtues all too often disappear. As Dachar Keltner, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, writes: “This is the heart of the power paradox: the seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place.”

Previously warm interactions become distinctly chilly as cynicism replaces camaraderie. Writing over fifty years ago the political scientist Hans Morgenthau poignantly described how a powerful person, unable to shrug off the suspicion that he is a target for manipulation, distrusts his relationships:

... the more men the master holds bound to his will, the more he is aware of his loneliness. His success in terms of power only serves to illuminate his failure in terms of love.

The power-holders start to distance themselves from those they were once close to. Niggling thoughts seed in their minds. They start to question the motives of those around them: ‘Do people like me because I’m me or because of my position? Are my jokes actually funny or are people just laughing because I’m the boss? Did that person do me a favour because they want something?’

In a series of studies I, together with my colleagues Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University and Adam Galinsky of Columbia University, investigated this psychological consequence of power – how the power-holder starts to view things through an altered lens.

Nothing is more costly than something given free of charge.

Japanese Proverb

We divided participants into two groups and asked them to write about either a subordinate or a peer, with whom they had worked. All the participants then responded to different scenarios in which that colleague had done them a favour such as proof-reading a document for them so they could leave work on time. They rated, on a 5-point scale, what they thought lay behind their colleague’s having offered the favour and how they felt about receiving it.

Those participants who had written about a subordinate were more likely to see the favour as selfishly-motivated; the group recalling a peer were less likely to suspect a selfish motive. This ‘powerful group’ also reported feeling less grateful and appreciative, and less likely to trust the person giving the favour. This group also felt less inclined to reciprocate. We concluded that, rather than being welcomed, favours can have the opposite effect. They make power-holders wary and impede the sort of friendly behaviour required for close relationships to develop and last.

Through a glass, darkly

A further study, conducted with my Sun Young Lee of University College London and Kimberly Rios of Ohio University examined this mistrust of an ostensibly kind act further. If you believe someone sees you in a particular way, does that alter the way you see yourself?

We assigned the roles of ‘boss’ and ‘worker’ to pairs of participants. They were told by the experimenter that one of them would have to work in a distant office about five minutes’ walk away, up a few flights of stairs. Although we set up the study so that it was always the ‘worker’ who went to the distant office, the ‘boss’ participant didn’t know that. (In fact, the ‘worker’ was a lab assistant.) In half the cases, it appeared that the ‘worker’ went as the result of the toss of a coin; in the other half, the worker went because they immediately volunteered to do so – as a favour.

The ‘boss’ was then asked to assess how much the ‘worker’ had acted because of their respective roles and how much they were motivated by expecting to be repaid. They were also asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how much they believed people liked them for their power, wealth, looks, kindness, ability to listen, considerateness, reliability, and trustworthiness.

Our study found that when the ‘boss’ believed the worker had gone to the distant office as a favour, they were more likely to believe it was done for purposes of ingratiation. More importantly, this made bosses more likely to believe that their power made them attractive to others.

I see what I think you see

Being done a favour causes the power-holder to self-objectify. In other words, they internalise the view that they believe others hold of them: “If someone thinks that I am valuable because of my power, then that must be what makes me valuable.” These power-holders think they are worth doing a favour for because of their influence - and then come to define themselves more in those terms. (It’s not relevant whether a subordinate does have an ulterior motive for doing the favour; what’s important here is that the power-holder believes that they do.) Desiring to remain attractive and important to others, they then push to increase their power further.

Although it’s commonly been believed that having power frees someone to be their true self we found the opposite: it ensnares them in a new and restrictive identity and cycle of behaviours. Another part of our study revealed that these behaviours included being prepared to pay more for high status goods: “Because other people value my power, I should buy a Rolex, a Porsche or a house in the Cotswolds”.

It’s little wonder then that those with power – to whatever degree or in whatever guise – may feel isolated. They can find themselves in an unenviable predicament. Spurning the kindness of others, they keep them at arm’s length while at the same time striving to maintain their worth in the eyes of those same people (and themselves) by scrambling for a bit more power.

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Kelltner, Dachar, The Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence, Penguin, London 2016

Ena Inesi, Deborah Gruenfeld and Adam Galinsky: How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others’ generous acts, 2011

Ena Inesi, Sun Young Lee, Kimberly Rios, Objects of desire: Subordinate ingratiation triggers self-objectification among powerful, 2012

Friedersdorf, C, Why PepsiCo CEO Indra K.Nooyi Can’t Have it All, ‘The Atlantic’, 1 July 2014

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