Posted by: A.R. Cherian | October 29, 2009

Power – The Dean’s Disease

This is not a medical disease, but according to Arthur G. Bedeian of LSU, a psychological manifestation of the power complex that drives behavior in university deans as seen in 3 decades of firsthand observation of deans in the academic context. The article is entitled “Dean’s Disease: How the darker side of power manifests itself in the office of dean” (Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2002, Vol. 1, No. 2, 164-173).

The effects of power on behavior are widely studied and many theories have developed about it.

Some of the “metamorphic effects of power” on power holders (according to psychologists cited in the article)

  • Unknowingly become puffed up with their own importance
  • The exercise of power changes their view of themselves and others
  • Being in top power positions influences the way others relate to power holders, and this in turn affects their thinking and then behavior
  • Information increasingly filtered out so that only viewpoints that agree with theirs is heard
  • Like to surround themselves with “doppelgangers” (carbon copies) who tell them what they like to hear (groupthink)
  • Live in an echo chamber that shields them from reality
  • Expresses irritation when views are challenged
  • For the power hungry, admiration becomes a drug
  • Having acquired a “taste for power,” the pursuit of power becomes an end in itself. New values and procedures emerge from this
  • Direct reports are seen as objects of manipulation with a secondary claim on rights and privileges. This occurs because it is easier to be callous about others’ appetitive needs, and even exploit or drop them when they no longer serve a purpose, if social contact and emotional involvement have been minimized (Kets de Vries, 1989)

Bedeian’s profile of deans bit by this bug:

  • Not exempt from the power complex
  • The role of dean actually magnifies the consequences
  • Stems from lack of objective and immediate measures of performance and the ability to hold officer for many years without confrontations

“If faculty wish to stay in the “inner circle” they will take care not to ruffle any decanal feathers and only communicate views that reflect the superiority of their dean’s ideas.”

  • Comfortable being surrounded by those who do not contradict their opinions or ideas
  • The echo chamber effect, leads to false illusion that everything is rosy inside their division or college
  • Most professors (especially nontenured) will not challenge the dean due to the privileges and rewards gained from being in the dean’s inner circle
  • Have an inflated sense of self – they believe they are really as gifted and intelligent as others tell them they are
  • Expresses irritation (usually ferociously) when views are challenged or new colleagues challenge the status-quo of way things are done
  • You can judge the quality of a dean by the quality of the people he surrounds himself with

Wow. The article had rather scathing comments about deans. I must say that it took the author some guts to write such a provocative piece. I kept thinking that he must have some real war stories apart from the few he mentioned that has led him to these conclusions. In an amusing way, it seems like something a professor would write on his way out the door.

Nevertheless, I love people who take a stand and speak out with courage. I hope many deans read it and examine their own behaviors. A rather interesting read. Check it out. The author also writes ways to prevent the “disease” or minimize its effects and a great check-list of questions deans should ask themselves at the end.

I’m very interested in the effects of power. Many of the symptoms of the “dean’s disease” is also applicable to CEOs and other managers. Watch out for the metamorphic effects in your own life and career. It may be harder to control than you think. But taking on that struggle is always a good thing.


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