This post was originally published in The Providence Journal eEdition, Oct. 2, 2012.

I don’t usually comment on politics, but recent events involving Mitt Romney were vivid reminders of how readily high-powered people (and lower power-people from their sides) fall into predictable patterns of self-defeating behavior.

In recent days, Mitt Romney has been savaged for writing off 47% of the US population as unambitious and hoping for more government largess. Inadvertently, he has demonstrated a much more universal challenge: when there are large gaps in power, the powerful often behave in predictable ways. This isn’t just about a weird individual in politics; it crosses sectors. Recent research from many angles has shown that they tend to spend significantly more time with elite people and groups; stereotype and discount the views of those with less power; are more oblivious to what other people think; believe that they are more perceptive and far-thinking; that low power people are not amenable to “reasonable” discussion; and the powerful believe that rules were made to be broken.

This is not about bad personality or poor character; it is a function of the dynamics of unequal power. Lower power people tend to withhold their disconfirming knowledge and views (often out of fear of the consequences of speaking up), keep their heads down and focus only on their own tasks, go along to get along – unless they are sufficiently upset to band together – and talk against the powerful behind their backs. In turn, this deprives the powerful, like top executives, of valuable information and confirms their views of the less powerful as narrow and less competent.

When Stanford professor David Bradford and I wrote our latest book, Influencing Up, we were thinking about these dynamics in organizations, not in politics. But Romney is such an archetypal example that it is impossible not to notice that for all his privileged position, he is a victim of power gap dynamics. The secretly videotaped fund-raising speech was certainly not the only evidence. Even when trying to be responsive, the deeply held pattern reasserts itself. For example, when he told aspiring student entrepreneurs that if stuck for financing they should ask their parents for funds, he was displaying a similar difficulty in imagining what it would be like to be without resources and connections, the core components of power. It may seem odd and ironic to call him a victim, but there is a good chance that this conditioned blindness will cost him the election.

Although the power gap dynamics are potent and widespread, some powerful people –perhaps the truly powerful — are able to overcome them. Whether by instinct, training, or experiences that taught valuable lessons, they utilize many ways to stay open to data and relationships from below. None of these behaviors work, however, if the powerful person is determined to avoid uncomfortable learning; (press conferences without questions or town meetings with only planted questions anyone?). Some perfectly good methods can fail: Management by walking around, for example, can be a wonderful way to encounter people informally and learn about what is on their minds, or as I have witnessed first-hand, a ritualized sham of asking routine questions without really listening to the answers.

But a powerful person determined to stay open can utilize surveys, focus groups, small group meetings, unscripted town meetings, follow-up questions – especially when tested by being given a tiny bit of information through a provocative question or comment – and a genuine attitude of inquiry that removes any hint of spite or retaliation when faced with negative information or attitudes of any kind. Trust that the powerful person is “different” and truly interested in knowledge and views of people at all levels, takes time and has to be built slowly, though an unexpected display of humanity can accelerate the process. When Jay Fishman became the head of St. Paul Insurance and was asked if as rumored he planned to move headquarters to New York, he responded with a humorous update about his family situation, commenting that while he did not plan to move headquarters, his New Jersey home was a sanctuary and that with a child in high school, if he wanted to stay married he couldn’t give up that house or immediately move his family. He added that while the St. Paul Hotel, owned by the insurance company, was a very nice place to stay, he didn’t plan to live in it forever. The temperature in the room packed with anxious employees changed dramatically, even though he had delivered tough messages about cutting costs to remain competitive.

Compare this to responses we have all seen where a powerful person bristles at anything suggesting he or she has an unstated or ulterior motive, or (at best smoothly) avoids unpleasant topics. It doesn’t take much to reaffirm the belief that the powerful person is just another phony who uses clichés about his or her door always being open, yet radiates contrary messages. Again, it is hard not to think about early Romney press conferences where his unstated response to annoying questions appeared to be, “how dare you ask me that?”

It is only fair to say that it isn’t only the heads of companies who often behave in these ways; I have seen large power gaps and similar behavior show up in universities, hospitals, law firms, nonprofits, government and even religions. And everywhere the behavior is reinforced by those with less power. That’s why I believe that it is wrong to smear the character of a powerful person who succumbs to the dynamics and writes off those who are less powerful or different in other ways. At the same time, from the lower power role we can decide whether to play along or to speak up and break the dynamic, voting with our feet within organizations, or at the ballot box in politics.

Allan Cohan
Professor of Management