Power really does corrupt

  • feed
  • Google+
by |

People who are in a position of power are more likely to view ‘wrongdoing’ unambiguously and are more likely to punish transgressors, according to new research.

These are the results of a study conducted by Scott Wiltermuth of the USC Marshall School of Business and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Wiltermuth and Flynn were inspired to conduct the study after observing their MBA students. “We noticed in our MBA classes that students who seemed to feel most powerful had these absolute answers about what’s right and what’s wrong,” Wiltermuth told Science Daily.

“We found the same phenomenon when we made other people feel powerful, and we also found the resulting clarity led people to punish questionable behaviour more severely,” Wiltermuth added.

Their research comprised four experiments in which some individuals were invested with the power to control resources and mete out rewards and punishments. These ‘powerful’ participants were more likely to condemn a behaviour as immoral (or not) when confronted with transgressions and to believe that the transgressors deserved more severe punishments. (Those participants without power were much more likely to have ambivalent feelings about a transgression.)

So what are the implications for managers? Wiltermuth described the correlation between holding power and the tendency towards harsher punishment as a ‘huge problem’ for them. “What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other people,” he explained. Organisational culture could be destabilised, if those without power protest their managers’ decisions, undermining their authority.

Suzanne Lucas, prominent HR blogger, had some advice for managers. “If you’re a manger, this study says you may be prone to make hard-line decisions. My advice is to take that into consideration. Set a goal for yourself that you will consider input from people every day before you act. Be careful in your hiring and surround yourself with good people who can help you make good choices – and then listen to them,” she wrote recently.

  • Leanne Faraday-Brash on 4/02/2013 7:15:18 PM

    Found this interesting in light of the fact that some of the people in positions of legitimate power in real life are renowned for turning a blind eye to immoral or otherwise unethical behaviour if the organisation or certain individuals enjoy a payoff from the said behaviour.
    I wonder if MBA students in this study with no potential real repercussions from rewards and punishments succumbed to social desirability and stepped up to decisive moral behaviour because the consequences were simulated and not real. If only all leaders would do the same when the top salesperson is also a sexual harasser and when a results-focussed manager is also accused of bullying.
    My experience of "vulture cultures" is that bad behaviour can be rewarded, justified and enabled if the end is seen to justify the means. Decisiveness here is no more important than quality decisions to shape good culture.

  • Leanne Faraday-Brash on 4/02/2013 7:15:58 PM

    Found this interesting in light of the fact that some of the people in positions of legitimate power in real life are renowned for turning a blind eye to immoral or otherwise unethical behaviour if the organisation or certain individuals enjoy a payoff from the said behaviour.
    I wonder if MBA students in this study with no potential real repercussions from rewards and punishments succumbed to social desirability and stepped up to decisive moral behaviour because the consequences were simulated and not real. If only all leaders would do the same when the top salesperson is also a sexual harasser and when a results-focussed manager is also accused of bullying.
    My experience of "vulture cultures" is that bad behaviour can be rewarded, justified and enabled if the end is seen to justify the means. Decisiveness here is no more important than quality decisions to shape good culture.

  • Pearl on 5/02/2013 8:23:47 AM

    I totally agree with "People who are in a position of power are more likely to view ‘wrongdoing’ unambiguously and are more likely to punish staff members by announcing a company restructure so that the person who does not agree with them will no longer be required in the restructure of the company

Human capital forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions