Four Practical Ways to Outsmart the Power Paradox



  • The extra cookie: A revelation (0:25)

  • How an increase in power can lead to a decrease in empathy (2:10)

  • What the Power Paradox looks like (from inside and out) (5:15)

  • The importance of sweeping the shed (8:35)

  • Four practical steps for outsmarting the Power Paradox (10:15)

  • Your turn… (13:10)


Here’s a myth about power … it goes something like this: “Hey, Beth. You shouldn’t have to wait. You’re the leader!”


In an informal observation, a group – comprised of one person who is identified as the leader and several of their staff – was served a plate of cookies. There were precisely enough cookies for everyone to have just one cookie, and then there was one extra.

Those who were not identified as the leader politely took one cookie each and left the spare. After a bit of time, the identified leader walked up and took the extra cookie.

To my surprise, this occurred in group after group.

As I read about this behavior, the other surprising thing (to me anyway) was that, most times, the leader chewed the second cookie with their mouth wide open and making loud noises with apparent disregard for the others in the room.

I can only imagine that some of the newer staff members watched the leader and wondered, “How did that person ever make it to this level of status?” And I can imagine that you, like me, might be wondering the same thing, too.

Hopefully what I’m going to talk about today is going to give you some insight and serve as a cautionary tale … it also might give you some tools to avoid hogging the last cookie or chewing with your mouth open.


The research of Susan Fiske, Ph.D. – an expert on the impact of power on prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination – tells us that the more power we achieve, the less we take a nuanced approach to reading and understanding the people around us.

Instead, the more power we have, the quicker we are to quickly stereotype others instead of taking time to build connections and relationships. Now, why is this?

Well, simply put, as our power increases, we command more resources that, previously, we had to build relationships to acquire, but once we’re in power, the building relationships part isn’t quite as critical.

Dacher Keltner, the psychologist whose work informed the movie about emotions called Inside Out, believes that powerful people believe that the rules just aren’t for them. But these leaders didn’t have that belief on their way up the ladder. If they had, they wouldn’t have made it to the top.

He calls this The Power Paradox, which also happens to be the title of his book. According to Keltner, “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place.”

I can tell you that I have sometimes fallen into the maw of the Power Paradox. One example is a thought I’ve had while waiting in the lunch line at workshops I’m leading…

A thought goes through my head that says, “Hey Beth, go to the front of the line. You shouldn’t have to wait. You’re leading this thing! Just cut in front of everybody. It’s okay.”

But cutting the line isn’t leadership. It also isn’t building connections. It’s the stinking Power Paradox screwing with me by encouraging me to create a divide between myself and the workshop participants.

All through a sense – false – of privilege that this little, tiny bit of power afforded me.


The beauty in being aware of and understanding the Power Paradox is that when you:

  • Feel entitled to the extra cookie,

  • Make snap decisions based on stereotypes,

  • Make assumptions rather than listen to meaningful data, or

  • Neglect to listen, connect, and get to know individuals,

…then you can stop, breathe, ground yourself, and then behave more like the leader you want to be (and probably like the person you were that allowed you to get to this place in leadership).

I make the majority of my income from working with leaders that an organization feels are just too valuable to fire, but most of the staff are walking around wondering, “How the heck did they make it to that leadership position?”

In confidential interviews, staff questions how someone made it to the top when their operating procedures show that:

  • They don’t exhibit empathy,

  • They’re quick to offer harsh judgments,

  • They are really impatient about hearing other’s input,

  • They’re pretty unwilling to express gratitude, and

  • They’re often stingy about allowing people to take earned vacation and time off.

Here are some of the comments I typically hear in confidential interviews…

  • “Are those the qualities that this company admires in a leader?”

  • “I feel like if I want to get ahead here, I need to be meaner, and I’m thinking of leaving because I’m just not interested in that path.”

  • “Yeah, I don’t worry about her, she’s just a bully.”

  • “He only cares about the bottom line. He doesn’t care at all about the people who help us get there.”

But when I talk to those who were around when this bully – now a leader – was climbing their way up the ladder, I hear the rest of the story, and I get the full truth. Staff who were colleagues in the leader’s early days tell me:

  • “She wasn’t always like this. She was always quick to hand out compliments.”

  • “We were on a team together, and he was such a great collaborator.”

  • “When my mother died, he was so understanding. I will always appreciate that, but I am just not sure what happened to him. Last week, he called me at home when I was out sick with a migraine, and he insisted that I make a phone call for him that day.”

So, what happened between then and now?


When we wake up in the morning feeling powerful, and that feeling is then reinforced by those around us all day – those who are dependent on us for a paycheck, a job, health insurance, or their promotion, and some who are still loyal to the person we were before the Power Paradox got the best of us – we get a reinforcement that doesn’t fit.

One of my dearest and most successful clients has avoided the Power Paradox entirely.

He has been the leader of an organization for over 20 years, and he lives by a motto he calls sweeping the shed. It’s based on the belief and practice that everyone on his staff, regardless of their position, goes out and sweeps the shed which houses the equipment that’s used in their work – the best of the best is when they’re all in there sweeping it together.

A big part of their work is providing an environment for youth to learn, observe, and practice leadership skills. The value of sweeping the shed is as important as any other aspect of leadership that he – the leader – and his staff routinely demonstrate for youth leaders.


The Power Paradox is both avoidable and fixable with just a bit of intention and focus. Here are some practical steps for being a sweep-the-shed kind of leader instead of an eat-the-last-cookie kind—

1. Practice Empathy. Listen with curiosity and a desire to seek understanding. Learn with gusto. Use words and phrases that express empathy and interest, and avoid offering quick fixes, solutions, or advice. Listen quietly instead of expressing every negative judgment that pops into your mind.

2. Create Connection. Check in with your staff – without agenda – spontaneously and often. Start meetings with icebreakers and community-building activities. Dare to allow yourself to be vulnerable – seek opinions and ask for help. Acknowledge the strengths of others. Laugh! Eat lunch with the team.

3. Express Gratitude. Begin or end meetings with statements of what you’re grateful for. Acknowledge the skills and strengths of team members. Send emails recognizing other people. Spontaneously and publicly give praise by noticing and acknowledging hard work and commitment.

4. Be Generous. Give your full attention to the people who are standing with you. Invite others to participate, or even take the lead, on high-profile projects. Offer compliments authentically and generously. Give credit to all who participate positively and who contribute to the success of your team or your organization. Share the last cookie, sweep the shed, and eat lunch last.


You can outsmart the Power Paradox. In fact, it isn’t really difficult, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun – and healthier – than falling into it. You will get to enjoy:

  • The connection with others,

  • A dopamine rush every time you give a compliment freely,

  • Increased engagement and the success of your team, and

  • An environment where people are eager to follow you.

How exciting is that!?

Are you feeling challenged by the Power Paradox? If so, my team and I are here to help you. Go check out the free resources we offer, or maybe even sign up for a little bit of coaching.

Looking forward to connecting with you – and here’s to sharing that last cookie.


This article was last published on July 13, 2017 and has been updated