Why leaders are such bad judges of character and consistently promote the wrong people

  • Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says leaders are often bad judges of character.
  • Grant says, “the more senior you get in your career, the better you think you are at judging character,” but he maintains that the opposite is actually true.
  • Grant says leaders often promote “takers” even though “givers” are better performers.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton. Grant went to the World Economic Forum in Davos to find out what the world’s most influential leaders had to say about power. His learnings have been compiled into an Audible original called “Power Moves.” He sat down with Business Insider’s Sara Silverstein to discuss what people misunderstand about getting power.

Watch the full interview with Adam Grant here: A Wharton professor and organizational psychologist says leaders promote the wrong people, exit interviews miss the point, and there’s an easy way to find out if someone is stealing

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2019.

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How NY Gov. Cuomo’s ‘apologies’ fail to recognize that power imbalances are at the root of sexual harassment

andrew cuomo
New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

  • Andrew Cuomo has issued denials, defenses, and apologies in response to misconduct accusations.
  • His “I never intended” responses miss the point – that power is at the heart of sexual harassment.
  • Ending sexual harassment will require a critical rethinking of the distribution of workplace power.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In recent weeks, multiple women have reported demeaning and sexualized workplace behavior by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In response, Cuomo has issued a combination of denials, defenses, and apologies.

Much of the public analysis of his statements has focused on the adequacy of these apologies – whether he took sufficient responsibility or expressed sufficient remorse.

Apologies deserve attention. They can help right wrongs and heal relationships.

Yet in the focus on apologies, an opportunity is missed to learn something about power. Power, after all, is at the heart of sexual harassment.

‘Unwanted imposition’

As Catharine MacKinnon, the architect of modern sexual harassment law, has argued, sexual misconduct at work can be defined as “the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power.”

If responses like Cuomo’s are viewed through a power-informed lens, different patterns emerge. In my own study of over 200 such statements, I found many references to the accused’s own long careers, to their many professional accomplishments, and to their excellent reputations. In short, when challenged, the men in my study (and all but three were men) did what came naturally: They reached for their power.

This pattern is connected to another theme that I discovered in the statements I studied: repetition of explanations and defenses centered on the accused person’s own subjective intent and perceptions.

It’s me being funny. I’m not trying to sexually harass people,” for example, or “I come from a very different culture,” or “I remember trying to kiss [her] as part of what I thought was a consensual seduction ritual.”

However, the accused’s intentions, thoughts, or beliefs – so central in the statements I studied – are only peripheral under sexual harassment law.

Not a joke

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the main federal law that covers workplace discrimination and harassment, an employee may sue her employer when she has experienced severe or pervasive workplace harassment.

Severity and pervasiveness are judged subjectively, from the harassed person’s point of view, and objectively, in the view of a theoretical “reasonable person.” The law also requires that the conduct be unwelcomed by the harassed person.

Though different courts have interpreted these requirements differently around the edges, sexual harassment cases do not turn on whether the harasser thought his conduct was a joke, or culturally acceptable, or ritualized seduction.

Instead, the law’s subjectivity and “welcomeness” requirements ask a superior – like Cuomo – to evaluate his own conduct from his subordinate’s point of view. Superiors who want to avoid committing harassment to begin with (before anything gets to a judge, jury, or media story) need to step outside their own perspective.

This requires empathy. And the more power that a person wields in the workplace, the more difficult it may be to step outside one’s own position and consider the circumstances from another person’s perspective.

‘I never intended’

Here’s where Cuomo’s responses are revealing.

In his first official statement, released on Feb. 28, 2021, out of 18 “I” statements, over half were versions of “I never intended,” “I was being playful,” or “I do, on occasion, tease people.”

Cuomo followed suit in his press conference on March 3, repeating over and over variations on the “I never intended” or “I never knew” or “I didn’t mean it that way” theme.

These statements suggest that, over his long career, Cuomo did not pay attention to the effects of his words and actions on his subordinates, and that the power of his position may have reinforced his heedlessness.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warns about just this type of scenario in its list of harassment risk factors: “High value employees may perceive themselves as exempt from workplace rules or immune from consequences of their misconduct.” Workplaces with significant power imbalances, too, make the risk factor list.

If the movement sparked by #MeToo focuses only on taking down individual bad actors, it will leave intact the workplace structures that enable and protect the powerful – and that produce statements like Cuomo’s. Ending sexual harassment requires a critical rethinking of workplace power, whether it flows from ownership of a company, management of an office, supervision of a shop floor, or the office of the governor.

Charlotte Alexander, associate professor of law and analytics, Georgia State University

The Conversation
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Why some Texas residents are ending up with $5,000 electric bills after the winter storms

texas weather
A vehicles drives on snow and sleet covered roads February 15, 2021, in Spring, Texas.

Texas residents who endured days without power during last week’s winter storms are facing a new obstacle: Electricity bills over $5,000 for just a few days of energy.

Some customers of state-owned electric grid are seeing the eye-popping, five-figure power bills because their plans are tied to the wholesale market rate. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, residents have been hit with $1,000 per day charges for electricity, The Dallas Morning News reported. Residents have taken to social media to show $5,000 bills – or more – over a period of about five days.

CPS Energy, the electric utility in San Antonio, said some consumers can expect “exorbitant” bills in the coming weeks, KSAT reported. The utility might try to minimize the hit by spreading the charges over a period of up to 10 years, the news station said. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott met with local lawmakers Saturday to address the latest crisis. “We are moving quickly to alleviate this problem and will continue to work collaboratively throughout this week on solutions to help Texas families and ensure they do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills,” Abbott said in a statement.

Spiking bills won’t hit state residents who had fixed-rate electric plans. The problem for many comes from index or variable rate plans, in which rates to power their home or business change with the price in the wholesale market. In good times, a customer’s bill can be lower – but if the price of electricity skyrockets, so too do bills.

Last Monday, as freezing weather rolled through Texas and the southeastern US, the wholesale price of electricity shot up 10,000%. It went from about $50 per megawatt hour to $9,000 – a system cap, according to data provided by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid’s operator. 

The price increase came as sources of electricity, like natural-gas plants, went offline in the freezing temperatures. Meantime, the unusually cold weather for a mostly temperate state meant demand for energy went up, as people turned up their heaters to stay warm.

ERCOT responded with rolling blackouts, it said, so as not to further damage the grid. The blackout, which affected a few million residents at its peak, is among the largest in US history.

President Joe Biden on Saturday declared a major disaster in Texas.

ERCOT did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment about the wholesale electricity price and reports of spiking consumer bills. 

It’s unclear how many Texas residents have variable or index-rate electric plans. Texans are allowed to shop for their power plans in its deregulated retail electricity market.

Griddy, one of the state’s electric companies, provides access to wholesale electricity for a monthly membership. Last week, it urged its nearly 30,000 customers to switch energy providers if they couldn’t afford the soaring rates, The Dallas Morning News reported. 

Some state lawmakers think some residents might not understand how their electricity is billed. 

“The state needs to look into whether or not people are signing up for things that they don’t really understand and signing up for things that could ultimately really hurt them,” Houston Democratic Rep. Gene Wu said, according to The Dallas Morning News.

On Sunday, power had been restored across much of Texas, though many people remain without water after pipes froze and burst. Damages from the storm, which left dozens dead, is expected to approach $50 billion, AccuWeather predicted. 

Abbott has called the blackout event “unacceptable” and said he would add the reform of ERCOT as an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has also launched a task force to investigate the outages in Texas and elsewhere in the US.

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