The feeling of power tends to lead people to punish others more harshly than they otherwise would want to, a new study suggests, as reported in this article republished courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business and World Science staff.
The research, to be published in The Academy of Management Journal, found that giving someone a sense of power instils a black-and-white sense of right and wrong – especially wrong, the authors said. Armed with this ‘moral clarity,’ the powerful punish perceived wrongdoers more severely.
The study focused on business management principles, but the findings may apply to politics too, the researchers added.
Employees, they noted, are often shocked by what they see as supervisors’ severe reactions to seemingly small transgressions. Yet the supervisors seem sure they are doing the right thing. The findings, the investigators said, may alert managers to unforeseen challenges they will face as they rise up the ranks.
It ‘could cause a huge problem for managers,’ said one of the investigators, Scott Wiltermuth of the University of South Carolina Marshall School of Business. ‘What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian’ by others.
‘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,’ he added.
Wiltermuth and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business set up four experiments in which they made some participants feel powerful – giving them the ability to control resources and administer rewards or punishments.
When presented with cases of transgressions, these participants were found more likely to say ‘yes, the behaviour is immoral’ or ‘no, it is not immoral.’ Seldom did they answer ‘it depends’ – a much more popular answer among the less powerful, the investigators said. This certainty, they added, led the ‘powerful’ participants to feel the transgressions deserved harsher punishments.
The researchers also found that ‘moral clarity’ was more clearly connected to delivering punishments than rewarding good behaviour.
These links between power, clarity and punishment can lead to organisational 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 organisation’s – authority and ability to operate.
The findings may apply to the public sector, said Wiltermuth, using the US Congress as an example. ‘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 organisations. ‘I am now most interested in exploring how we can reduce this moral clarity and create a healthy sense of doubt.’
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Source: World Science, http://www.world-science.net