Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Power's punishing impact: Power linked to tendency to punish harshly

Date:
January 17, 2013
Source:
USC Marshall School of Business
Summary:
Providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong (especially wrong), new research shows. 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.

Power has been linked to the tendency to punish harshly. Often, employees are shocked by what they think is a supervisor's severe reaction to a subordinate's seemingly minor transgression. 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.
Credit: Mirma / Fotolia

Often, employees are shocked by what they think is a supervisor's severe reaction to a subordinate's seemingly minor transgression. 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.

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.

The research alerts managers to some unforeseen challenges they will face as they come to hold more and more power, according to Wiltermuth. 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 managers. What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other people."

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 or punishments. 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.

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.

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 organizations. "I am now most interested in exploring how we can reduce this moral clarity and create a healthy sense of doubt."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by USC Marshall School of Business. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. S. Wiltermuth, F. Flynn. Power, Moral Clarity, and Punishment in the Workplace. Academy of Management Journal, 2012; DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0960

Cite This Page:

USC Marshall School of Business. "Power's punishing impact: Power linked to tendency to punish harshly." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 January 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117142554.htm>.
USC Marshall School of Business. (2013, January 17). Power's punishing impact: Power linked to tendency to punish harshly. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117142554.htm
USC Marshall School of Business. "Power's punishing impact: Power linked to tendency to punish harshly." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117142554.htm (accessed July 22, 2014).

Share This




More Science & Society News

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law

Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law

AP (July 22, 2014) Two federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings Tuesday on the legality of the federally-run healthcare exchange that operates in 36 states. (July 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
What Self-Made Women Need to Know Financially Before Getting Hitched

What Self-Made Women Need to Know Financially Before Getting Hitched

TheStreet (July 21, 2014) Halle Berry was recently ordered to pay her ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubry $16,000 a month in child support by a California judge for their daughter Nahla. As women make strides in the workforce, they are increasingly left holding the bag when relationships end regardless of marital status. 'What Monied Women Need to Know Before Getting Married or Cohabitating' discusses information such as debt incurred during the marriage is both spouse's responsibility at divorce, whether after ten years of marriage spouses are entitled to half of everything and why property acquired within the marriage is fair game without a pre-nup. Video provided by TheStreet
Powered by NewsLook.com
$23.6 Billion Awarded To Widow In Smoking Lawsuit

$23.6 Billion Awarded To Widow In Smoking Lawsuit

Newsy (July 20, 2014) Cynthia Robinson claims R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company hid the health and addiction risks of its products, leading to the death of her husband in 1996. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Clock Ticks Down on Internet Speed Debate

Clock Ticks Down on Internet Speed Debate

Reuters - US Online Video (July 18, 2014) The FCC received more than 800,000 comments on whether and how internet speeds should be regulated, even crashing its system. Lily Jamali reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins