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January 18, 2013 by APRIL McCARTHY
People With Power Perceive Wrongdoing With Less Ambiguity Than People Lacking Power


Most companies are ruled by a specific power structure and the only reason it works is because there are those that feel subservient and do not question those they report to. Employees are often shocked by what they think is a supervisor’s severe reaction to a subordinate’s seemingly minor transgression. The supervisors who punish them seem to be so absolutely sure that they are doing the right thing--they have a clear sense of purpose and there are no arguments to sway them. However, new research find that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong (especially wrong). Once armed with this moral clarity, powerful people then perceive wrongdoing with much less ambiguity than people lacking this power, and punish apparent wrong-doers with more severity than people without power would.



New research by Scott Wiltermuth, a USC Marshall School of Business assistant professor of management and organization, and co-author Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong (especially wrong). Once armed with this moral clarity, powerful people then perceive wrongdoing with much less ambiguity than people lacking this power, and punish apparent wrong-doers with more severity than people without power would.

Highly detailed studies of “chimpanzee politics” have found that social power among nonhuman primates is based less on sheer strength, coercion, and the unbridled assertion of self-interest, and more on the ability to negotiate conflicts, to enforce group norms, and to allocate resources fairly. More often than not, this research shows, primates who try to wield their power by dominating others and prioritizing their own interests will find themselves challenged and, in time, deposed by subordinates.

The research alerts managers to some unforeseen challenges they will face as they come to hold more and more power, according to Wiltermuth. The research results appear in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

“We noticed in our MBA classes that the students who seemed to feel most powerful had these absolute answers about what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Wiltermuth.

“We found the same phenomenon when we made other people feel powerful, and we also found the resulting clarity led people to punish questionable behavior more severely. That link between power and more severe punishment could cause a huge problem for managers. What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other people.”

Wiltermuth and Flynn set up four experiments in which they made some individuals feel powerful--giving them the ability to control resources and administer rewards or punishments. When presented with cases of transgressions, the powerful participants were more likely to say “yes, the behavior is immoral,” “no, it is not immoral”.

Very few powerful people answered with “it depends,” which was a much more popular answer among the less powerful. Owing to this certainty, the participants made to feel powerful felt that the transgressions deserved harsher punishments.

Significantly, the researchers found that moral clarity was more clearly connected to delivering punishments than administering bonuses for good behavior. “Our findings do not imply that having this moral clarity leads people to obtain power. Rather, the findings imply that once you obtain power you become more likely to see things in black-and-white,” he said.

The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote with brilliant insight about deference--the manner in which we afford power to others with honorifics, formal prose, indirectness, and modest nonverbal displays of embarrassment. We can give power to others simply by being respectfully polite.

These links between power, clarity and punishment can lead to organizational problems in the private and public sector, Wiltermuth warned. People without power could begin protesting a manager’s decisions, which can erode the manager’s--and the organization’s--authority and ability to operate.

People instinctively identify individuals who might undermine the interests of the group, and prevent those people from rising in power, through what we call “reputational discourse.”

In the public sector, using the U.S. Congress as an example --Wiltermuth pointed to the dead certainty in which elected officials often make their case. “You ask yourself, ‘How can they talk about these complex issues in such black and white terms?’ The short attention spans of the media and their constituencies may explain some of it, but it may also be that politicians are so powerful that they may actually see issues in black-and-white terms more than the rest of us do.”

Wiltermuth is continuing his research into the relationships between managerial power and how it affects organizations. “I am now most interested in exploring how we can reduce this moral clarity and create a healthy sense of doubt.”

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.

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