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 October 21, 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 October 21, 2014).

Share This



More Science & Society News

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

CDC Revamps Ebola Guidelines After Criticism

CDC Revamps Ebola Guidelines After Criticism

Newsy (Oct. 21, 2014) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued new protocols for healthcare workers interacting with Ebola patients. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Robots to Fly Planes Where Humans Can't

Robots to Fly Planes Where Humans Can't

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 21, 2014) Researchers in South Korea are developing a robotic pilot that could potentially replace humans in the cockpit. Unlike drones and autopilot programs which are configured for specific aircraft, the robots' humanoid design will allow it to fly any type of plane with no additional sensors. Ben Gruber reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
WHO: Ebola Vaccine Trials to Start a in January

WHO: Ebola Vaccine Trials to Start a in January

AP (Oct. 21, 2014) Tens of thousands of doses of experimental Ebola vaccines could be available for "real-world" testing in West Africa as soon as January as long as they are deemed safe in soon to start trials, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. (Oct. 21) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Portable Breathalyzer Gets You Home Safely

Portable Breathalyzer Gets You Home Safely

Buzz60 (Oct. 21, 2014) Breeze, a portable breathalyzer, gets you home safely by instantly showing your blood alcohol content, and with one tap, lets you call an Uber, a cab or a friend from your contact list to pick you up. Sean Dowling (@SeanDowlingTV) has the details. Video provided by Buzz60
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:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Science & Society

Business & Industry

Education & Learning

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