January 17, 2013
Often, employees are
shocked by what they think is a supervisor's
severe reaction to a subordinate's seemingly
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.
People With Power
Wrongdoing With Less Ambiguity
Than People Lacking Power
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
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
What a manager sees as appropriate
punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other
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
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
“I am now most interested in
exploring how we can reduce this moral clarity and create
a healthy sense of doubt.”