THE DARK SIDE OF POWER: How Authority Changes Good People

Welcome to the eye-opening exploration of authority’s untold tale. Ever wonder why some bosses, once approachable, turn into unbearable figures?

It’s not just their dedication or seriousness—it’s the unexpected shift in behavior that gets under your skin. Today, we delve into the mysterious paradox of power, revealing how climbing the ladder transforms individuals from good colleagues to difficult authorities. Get ready to uncover the science behind this transformation and explore the psychological impacts that come with authority. In this article, we’ll dissect the traits of ‘Hubris Syndrome,’ the toxic effects of power, and unveil how the climb up the hierarchy rewires behaviors. Dive in to understand the surprising implications and discover strategies to curb the corrosive influence of authority. It’s time to navigate the fine line between leadership and the perils of power.

When Good Colleagues Turn Bad: The Paradox of Power

It’s not about their high standards, seriousness, or dedication to work; it’s their abysmal behavior—being downright mean, dishonest, arrogant, and frequently abusive. What’s paradoxical is that many of these ‘bad’ bosses were once the ‘good guys’—supportive colleagues who readily offered help, guidance, and ideas.

So, what happened to these once-decent people, turning them nearly insufferable now? Science points the finger at power. Yes, climbing the hierarchy and gaining decision-making authority tends to strip away the former decency from even the kindest souls.

Hubris Syndrome: The Toxic Effect of Power

Research conducted over several years by Professor Dacher Keltner and his team at the University of California – Berkeley unveils a striking reality: as individuals ascend the hierarchy and gain access to resources and decision-making, they tend to lose control and judgment, allowing themselves to be carried away, considering themselves special, entitled to disregard rules, and break even the most fundamental principles of common sense.

In 2023, University of Maastricht’s Jean-Paul Selten highlighted that toxic personalities can evolve into a realm characterized by “exaggerated pride, contempt for others, and a distorted sense of reality.” This marks the descent into what’s often termed as “hubris”—a fatal flaw in one’s personality.

This toxic effect of power on those climbing the ladder is the “Hubris syndrome”, a tendency to take extreme risks, refusal to listen or accept advice, pathological ambition, and heightened egocentrism.

You might recognize this term from Greek mythology, where figures like the ill-fated Icarus embodied such traits. It’s not just confined to ancient tales; literature teems with characters like Jay Gatsby, Macbeth, Scarlett O’Hara, and even Disney’s infamous figures such as “Aladdin’s” Jafar or “The Little Mermaid”‘s Ursula, embodying the traits of hubris.

The Temptation of Power: Its Mind-Altering Effects

For those swept away by power, a troubling belief emerges: rules no longer apply to them. “Rules are for others; I have the privilege to break them,” they say, justifying their abuse by claiming the need for results, asserting their genius surpasses the confines of common norms. This sense of exemption from rules often combines with pathological ambition: these individuals would do anything (including illegal acts) for immediate gains, even if it means bending or breaking the rules.

More often than not, those who attain power exhibit a particular and dangerous form of incompetence driven by impulsivity, recklessness, frequent carelessness, and become unaware of their own glaring inadequacies and the lack of rational arguments behind their decisions.

The Allure of Abuse that Comes with Power

In one of his experiments, Dacher Keltner divided a large group of middle school students into two sets randomly. The students took a general knowledge test based on their school curriculum. After completing the test, they were asked to self-grade their papers. Half of the students self-graded in their classroom, while the other half experienced the same process but in the school principal’s office.

What do you think happened? You might have guessed it: the students who found themselves in a context evoking power, namely the principal’s office, cheated 50% more than those who graded their papers in the classroom. Just being placed in a space associated with authority and power prompted these children to falsify their evaluations at a significantly higher rate.

The sense of power made them feel entitled to cheat, disregard rules, and position themselves higher than they deserved. And mind you, we’re talking about middle school kids, highlighting how this temptation of power abuse is intrinsic and natural, not a result of learned or taught experiences.

Further experiments by Dacher Keltner’s team validated this hypothesis: the access to power, the feeling of being able to make decisions based solely on one’s will, comes bundled with a tremendous temptation to abuse, circumvent rules, and grant oneself illegitimate rights and resources. Not all subjects in the experiments exhibited this behavior, but the phenomenon occurred in a sufficiently significant number of cases to confirm the toxic effects of power on people’s judgment.

Keen on understanding the intricate ties between authority, hubris, and workplace behavior and how they shape our decisions at work? Delve deeper into the compelling insights on why leaving a toxic job poses such a challenge. Click here to explore the nuanced dynamics influencing career choices and the impact of power dynamics in the workplace.

What Can We Learn?

It’s imperative to establish feedback and control mechanisms, including self-control, to help those in positions of power stay connected with reality and common sense. Bosses must cultivate the healthy habit of genuinely listening to the voices, opinions, and especially the critical signals of those they collaborate with. Feedback, even when inconvenient, is crucial to maintaining balance and control within our organizations.

I’m certain the example I shared made you think of powerful figures in your workplace and in the public sphere, such as politicians and institutional leaders. Undoubtedly, many instances of abusive behavior by the powerful swiftly came to mind.

We’ve learned that power has the gift of corrupting, and these individuals don’t consciously and intentionally traverse the path to abuse. However, this explanation doesn’t excuse or provide reasons to continue such behavior.

If we aim for healthy organizations and a fair society, we must construct feedback and control mechanisms that prevent or at least limit power abuse. It’s up to all of us to discuss this topic as extensively as possible and realize the necessity to combat this phenomenon for the greater good. Power corrupts, and it’s our collective duty to keep those in power grounded.

Welcome to a revealing journey into the unspoken reality of authority. Have you ever wondered why once-approachable bosses transform into unrecognizable figures? It’s not just about their dedication; it’s the puzzling shift in behavior that gets under your skin. Today, we unpack the enigmatic nature of power, uncovering how ascending the career ladder turns individuals from supportive colleagues into challenging authorities. Brace yourself to unearth the science behind this transformation and delve into the psychological impacts that tag along with authority. In this article, we dissect the traits of ‘Hybris,’ explore the toxic effects of power, and reveal how climbing the hierarchy rewires behaviors. Join us as we decode the implications and discover strategies to curb the corrosive influence of authority.

The Journey Continues: Navigating the Perils of Authority

As we draw the curtains on our exploration of authority’s hidden dynamics, it’s clear that power holds an uncanny ability to shape behavior and alter personalities. The transformation from ally to adversary in the workplace is a phenomenon rooted in the paradoxical nature of authority.

From the revealing research on Hubris Syndrome to the psychological impacts detailed in the climb up the hierarchy, we’ve shed light on the intricate facets of power’s influence. The examples from experiments and literary characters vividly illustrate how power can distort judgment and morality.

It’s essential not just to recognize these shifts but also to take proactive steps in safeguarding against the pitfalls of authority. Through assessments and insights offered by tools like Great People Inside, we empower ourselves to decipher and anticipate the emergence of hubris.

Remember, understanding the signs and traits associated with hubris is the first step in fostering healthier work environments. By embracing the insights gleaned from assessments, we pave the way for more mindful leadership and organizational harmony.

So, as you step back into the realm of authority and collaboration, seize the opportunity to cultivate a culture that values feedback, self-awareness, and responsible leadership. The journey of grappling with the nuances of power continues—it’s time to navigate the fine line between leadership and the perils of power.

Empower yourself today. Take the first step toward a workplace that thrives on balanced authority and collective growth.

Take a free demo to uncover the darker traits that might pave the way for the hubris syndrome. It’s time to empower yourself with insights that enable proactive measures in managing and navigating the complexities of authority.

Laura Dragne is a dedicated PR enthusiast deeply committed to championing CSR initiatives and advocating for impactful social involvement. Her PR journey has instilled in her a profound belief that every interaction holds the potential to broaden one’s understanding of both oneself and the world. A proud graduate of Social Communication and Public Relations from the University of Bucharest, Romania, Laura seamlessly merges her academic knowledge with a heartfelt dedication to effecting positive change through purposeful communication strategies and community engagement.


Selten J-P (2023). Consider the hubris syndrome for inclusion in our classification systems. Psychological Medicine 53, 5889–5891.

Owen, D., & Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US presidents and UK prime ministers over the last 100 years. Brain, 132(Pt 5), 1396–1406. doi:10.1093/brain/awp008