SURVIVING MT. EVEREST’S ‘DEATH ZONE’…
Julie Diamond, Ph.D, who has spent a lifetime studying the effects of power on people, draws a fascinating comparison between climbing Mt. Everest and achieving high rank and power. In her book, ‘Power: A User’s Guide’, she paints a dramatic word picture …
“At 26,000 feet above sea level, the body starts to die. Here, at an altitude known as the “death zone”—only 3,000 feet below the summit of Mount Everest—oxygen levels are a third of what they are at sea level. You have about two days before you run out of air. Hypoxia, low atmospheric pressure, means less oxygen is entering your brain. Your judgment is impaired. You become confused, your balance starts to falter, and you begin to hallucinate. You are losing your mind—right when you need it most.
“Just like the oxygen-thin atmosphere on the upper reaches of Mount Everest, the rarified atmosphere of high power and status alters our minds, diminishing our judgment and distorting our perceptions. As we attain power, we develop an illusory sense of control. Our belief in our own ideas increases while our interest in others’ feedback and emotions decreases.
“But here’s the difference: on Everest, climbers at high altitude feel awful. … In the embrace of power, we feel great. The more altered we become, the better we feel. High rank and power lower our inhibitions and prime us to act. Our confidence soars as our perceptions grow more distorted. Our self-esteem rises, while our self-awareness decreases. Our capacity to feel empathy for others lessens, just as the influence we have over them increases. The more we need guidance from others, the less we want it.“
A sobering metaphor, indeed, about the dangers of ”power-blindness”. So how can we avoid the “death zone” of power and the resultant egotism and lack of self awareness?
Here are three ways:
1. By being genuinely open to feedback: Others will only be open and honest with us if we give them the permission to be so. Those who have our best interests at heart need to know that we will value their perspectives and suggestions even if they are sometimes difficult to hear. If we react defensively when they try to point things out to us, they may have second thoughts about doing so again. As a result we could end up missing out on perspectives that could really help us.
2. By admitting we could be wrong: Receiving feedback is not always easy. It has been correctly said that the toughest words in any language are “I was wrong”. It is never easy to admit we were mistaken about something, but it is not half as difficult as having to defend a faulty position.
3. By realising we still have a lot to learn: There is nothing quite as good for our humility as making a list of all the things we don’t know. Understanding that helps to keep us in a healthy space and acknowledging that we are not the founts of all wisdom. By staying in learning mode, we remain young at heart and nicer to be around.
Have a great week!