Power really does corrupt

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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.

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