December 8th, 2014
Often, employees are shocked by what they think is a supervisor’s severe reaction to a subordinate’s transgression. Meanwhile, observers of Congressional debates have wondered at how seriously the debaters (on either side of the aisle) seem to take themselves.
These traits arise from a psychological state that occurs when someone acquires power, a University of Southern California researcher has found. This psychological state—known as moral clarity—allows the power-holder to mete out often-harsher forms of punishment. The research has strong implications for how managers should mediate the psychological changes that come with acquisition of power. The research results appear in the Academy of Management Journal.
Scott Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organization at USC, and colleague Francis Flynn of Stanford University, 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. This scenario is contrary to much management theory, which assumed that powerful people would be more hesitant to act so definitively and severely.
The researchers found that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong (especially wrong).
“We noticed in our MBA classes that people who seemed to feel powerful had these absolute answers about what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Wiltermuth. “We created scenarios where we manipulated power, and arrived at these results. It seems like there could be a huge disconnect between what people in lower levels of an organization think is appropriate behavior and what higher levels think. People could protest that your actions aren’t fair, but in your mind you’re acting fine.”
Wiltermuth and Flynn set up four experiments in which they created a situation that provided power to some individuals—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, that’s a problem,” or “no, it isn’t.” Very few answered with “it depends,” which was a more popular answer among the less powerful. In addition, the powerful participants felt that the transgressions were more severe than the powerless, and had no issue with delivering harsher punishments.
Significantly, Wiltermuth found that moral clarity around reward-giving was less certain than it was around delivering punishments. Moreover, almost none of the powerful participants lacked moral clarity.
“There may be people like that, without moral clarity, who are in power, but we haven’t found them,” Wiltermuth said. “It’s possible that having moral clarity makes you think you’re a leader, but in our cases, once you’re a leader, you get this moral clarity.”
These psychological traits can lead to organization 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 US Congress as an example—Wiltermuth pointed to the dead certainty in which US Representatives make their case. “You ask yourself, ‘how can they see this as black and white? How can they not see a problem with saying there’s a thing like legitimate rape?’ Now we see how.”
Wiltermuth is continuing his research into the relationships between managerial power and how it manipulates organizations. “I would like to look at personality moderators—how can we reduce this moral clarity, and create a healthy sense of doubt?”
Wiltermuth, S., & Flynn, F. (2012). Power, Moral Clarity, and Punishment in the Workplace Academy of Management Journal DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0960
intimidation at work, punishment workplace