If you’ve been watching the show The Last Man on Earth then you are aware of Phil Miller (Will Forte), a good natured guy who is one of the sole survivors of a cataclysm that wipes out most the Earth’s population. Miller has the best of intentions but when he finds himself in a place of power, you realize that he is not equipped to lead others. Like many people, Miller quickly tries to turn his managerial role into a dictatorship.
It is not uncommon for novice leaders to be affected by newfound power. A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who have experienced little to no prior power are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors when placed in a supervisory role. This includes greater displays of hostility, leveraging power for personal favors, obstructing opportunities for subordinates, and harassing those under their direction.
According to the researchers, powerlessness is accompanied by feelings of shame and frustration. Individuals who see themselves as chronically denied power are motivated to correct their shortfall by exploiting whatever opportunities they can attain. This then makes them feel more powerful.
For those of us in a position of promoting and hiring new leaders, these results are alarming. How do we provide opportunities to those who have shown an aptitude to move up the ladder while also weeding out candidates who will relish the power a bit too much? Consider the following:
- Look at prior leadership experience. This does not have to be work-related. Go back to their school years. Ask about leadership roles in their church. The goal is to find a pattern of seeking and/or being sought for greater responsibility.
- Dig into why they want to be a leader. What is their motivation for aspiring towards a position that is much more stressful than being a lone operator? Does personal ambition trump company well-being?
- Conduct behavioral interviews. Past experience is the best predictor of future performance. By asking “How did you do _____ in your last job?”, the behavioral interview provides a view into their decision making and inner drive.
- Develop skills before getting the job. If you have a group of promising up-and-comers, enroll them in leadership training before they become a leader. This will help set expectations, expedite the learning curve, and set the groundwork to minimize the growing pains typical of an inexperienced leader.
- Conduct a pilot program. If you want to know how someone will react in a leadership role, give them a leadership role. Before an official promotion, put them in charge of a task force or committee. The stakes are lower and the potential damage is limited.
On The Last Man on Earth, the number of people to accept a leadership role is limited. Phil Miller takes charge because he can. However, <spoiler alert> he is quickly stripped of all power when the other survivors become aggravated with his belligerent attitude. Turns out that before the apocalypse Miller had a history of feeling powerless, and as his actions showed, he was unprepared for this sudden burst of authority.
Don’t make the same mistake in your workplace. Prioritize the importance of identifying candidates who share the company’s values and are able to communicate and model these values for others. Grow your future leader before they take on responsibility. Select people who want to be a leader for the right reasons and continue to stretch their skills so they are ready when opportunities arise.