There have been a series of posts on the Mosaicproject blog discussing the illusion of control and the limitations of statistical analysis for predicting or controlling the future. The key posts are:
Another dimension to the illusion of control, identified in a study by Nathanael Fast and Deborah Gruenfeld at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Niro Sivanathan at the London Business School and Adam Galinsky at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, show that power can literally ‘go to one’s head’, causing individuals who have power to think they have more personal control over outcomes than they, in fact, do. Across three experiments, using two different instantiations of power, the researchers found that power led to perceived control over outcomes that were either uncontrollable or unrelated to the power.
Galinksy reported, “In each experiment, whether the participant recalled power by an experience of holding power or it was manipulated by randomly assigning participants to Manager-Subordinate roles, it led to perceived control over outcomes that were beyond the reach of the individual. Furthermore, the notion of being able to control a ‘chance’ result led to unrealistic optimism and inflated self-esteem.”
The authors note that positive illusions can be adaptive, helping power holders make the seemingly impossible possible. But the relationship between power and illusory control might also contribute directly to losses in power, by causing leaders to make poor choices. They conclude that “the illusion of personal control might be one of the ways in which power often leads to its own demise.”
These results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, have implications for how power, once attained, is maintained or lost. From an organisational perspective, the ability of knowledgeable technical managers to effectively advise upwards is a powerful counterbalance to unreasonable hubris [for more on the report see: Power And The Illusion Of Control].
My next book, Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders seeks to define the skills and knowledge needed to make sure important information is passed up the chain to senior managers.