Business Psychology

Article No. 354
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Experience of Power

New research reveals two problems that come with power.

Occasionally, people imagine what they'd do with wealth. They'd pay their debts, travel to exotic destinations, and buy themselves and their family members expensive gifts, cars, and houses. They'd stop worrying about money, and they wouldn't have to work for a living. Alas, wealth comes to few.

But what about power?

As a business owner, it's much more likely that you will gain power than wealth. Remember, every employee you hire calls you "boss." You control critical resources for these people, their jobs, and you have the obligation to appropriately reward and punish your employees for things they do. Control of resources and responsibility to administer rewards and punishments defines power.

"What's that like? What's it like to possess power?"

That is a question every business owner who employs others answers, and it's also been the subject of much research. Researchers want to understand the effect power has on the people who have it, how it changes the way they think and what they do. The people who possess power might also be interested in the effects possessing power is having on them. Scott Wiltermuth, from the University of Southern California, is the most recent scientist to make a contribution in this field.

Wiltermuth worked with 418 adults and conducted four experiments. He began by provoking a sense of power in half of his subjects by asking them to recall and write about a time in their lives when they felt powerful. The rest of the people wrote about neutral experiences. Next, he introduced moral dilemmas. These involved settings, characters, and actions that presented competing interests and contradictory principles, i.e. loyalty versus telling the truth. Finally, he required them to act. He wanted them to recommend a specific course of action that the researchers themselves would follow in responding to moral dilemmas they encountered in their work.

When Wiltermuth's subjects had completed the task, he asked them to complete questionnaires that would reveal their thinking as they worked through and completed their recommendations. By analyzing these and comparing the group induced to feel powerful with those who did not feel powerful, he was able to make conclusions about the experience of power for his subjects.

First, the experience of writing about power did provoke a sense of personal power. That was the first thing he checked. Second, he found that those feeling powerful had a sense of clarity in the murky realm of moral dilemma, a clarity that they alone experienced. Finally, he found that those feeling powerful recommended the harshest punishments. Their punishments were much harsher than others recommended in his experiments. Woltermuth's analysis allowed him to conclude that moral clarity was the key change in thinking, and punishing others was the key change in behavior that an increased sense of power brought to those who experienced it.

An inflated sense of clarity in moral questions and a proclivity to punish others more severely than less powerful people would do . . . these are interesting effects of the experience of power. These are troubling effects of the experience of power, and they give those who have power - you - something to think about.

It could be that issues that are perfectly clear to you aren't as clear to others. Perhaps you should check. Perhaps you should ask a few people whom you trust before you take an action that might blow up in your face . . . an action based on an inflated sense of clarity and certainty that no one else has . . . a sense of clarity not justified by the facts.

We trust business owners to act responsibly. We all depend upon it, especially employees. Now, thanks to Professor Wiltermuth's contribution, responsible action will include finding ways to temper an inflated sense of moral clarity that leads to unnecessarily harsh punishments of others. It also might improve the quality of decisions business owners make in a whole host of problems and decisions they face where an inflated sense of certainty leads to inferior decisions.

Reference: Wiltermuch, Scott and Francis Flynn (2013) Power, Moral Clarity, and Punishment in he Workplace. Academy of Management Journal, August 1, 2013; 56 (4) 1002-1023.

© Management Resources

See Also:
The Irony of Punishment

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