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Power linked to tendency to punish harshly

Jan. 18, 2013
Courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business
and World Science staff

The feel­ing of pow­er tends to lead peo­ple to pun­ish oth­ers more harshly than they oth­er­wise would want to, a new study sug­gests.

The re­search, to be pub­lished in The Acad­e­my of Man­age­ment Jour­nal, found that giv­ing some­one a sense of pow­er in­stills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong—espe­cially wrong, the au­thors said. Armed with this “mor­al clar­ity,” the pow­erful pun­ish per­ceived wrong­doers more se­v­ere­ly.

The study fo­cused on busi­ness man­age­ment prin­ci­ples, but the find­ings may apply to pol­i­tics too, the re­search­ers added.

Em­ploy­ees, they not­ed, are of­ten shocked by what they see as su­per­vi­sors’ sev­ere re­ac­tions to seem­ingly small trans­gres­sions. Yet the su­per­vi­sors seem sure they’re do­ing the right thing. The find­ings, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said, may alert mana­gers to un­fore­seen chal­lenges they’ll face as they rise up the ranks.

It “could cause a huge prob­lem for man­agers,” said one of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors, Scott Wilter­muth of the Uni­vers­ity of South Car­o­li­na Mar­shall School of Busi­ness. “What a man­ag­er sees as ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ishment could be seen as ab­so­lutely dra­co­ni­an” by oth­ers.

“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,” he added. 

Wilter­muth and Fran­cis Flynn of the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness set up four ex­pe­ri­ments in which they made some par­ti­ci­pants feel pow­erful—giv­ing them the abil­ity to con­trol re­sources and ad­min­is­ter re­wards or pun­ishments. 

When pre­sented with cases of trans­gres­sions, these par­ti­ci­pants were found more likely to say “yes, the be­hav­ior is im­mor­al” or “no, it is not im­mor­al.” Sel­dom did they an­swer “it de­pend­s”—a much more pop­u­lar an­swer among the less pow­erful, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. This cer­tain­ty, they added, led the “pow­erful” par­ti­ci­pants to feel the trans­gres­sions de­served harsher pun­ishments.

The re­search­ers al­so found that “mor­al clar­ity” was more clearly con­nect­ed to de­liv­er­ing pun­ishments than re­ward­ing good be­hav­ior.

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.

The find­ings may apply to the pub­lic sec­tor, said Wilter­muth, us­ing the U.S. Con­gress as an ex­am­ple. “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.”


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The feeling of power tends to lead people to punish others more harshly than they otherwise would want to, a new study suggests. The research, to be published in of the Academy of Management Journal, found that giving someone a sense of power instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong—especially wrong, the authors said. Armed with this “moral clarity,” the powerful punish apparent wrong-doers with more severity than others would. The study focused on business management principles, but the findings may apply to politics too, the researchers added. Employees, they noted, are often shocked by what they see as supervisors’ severe reactions to seemingly small transgressions. Yet the supervisors seem sure they’re doing the right thing. The findings, the investigators said, may alert workers to unforeseen challenges they’ll face as they rise up the ranks. It “could cause a huge problem for managers,” said one of the investigators, Scott Wiltermuth of the University of South Carolina Marshall School of Business. “What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other people.” “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,” he added. Wiltermuth and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business set up four experiments in which they made some participants feel powerful—giving them the ability to control resources and administer rewards or punishments. When presented with cases of transgressions, these participants were found more likely to say “yes, the behavior is immoral” or “no, it is not immoral.” Seldom did they answer “it depends”—a much more popular answer among the less powerful, the investigators said. This certainty, they added, led the “powerful” participants to feel the transgressions deserved harsher punishments. The researchers also found that “moral clarity” was more clearly connected to delivering punishments than rewarding good behavior. 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. The findings may apply to the public sector, said Wiltermuth, using the U.S. Congress as an example. “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.”