Power corrupts, especially when it lacks status
A certain amount of authority without a corresponding degree of respect tends to be a toxic combination, Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky finds
9/20/2011 - Ever wonder why that government clerk was so rude and condescending? Or why the mid-level manager at your company always doles out the most demeaning tasks? Or, on a more profound level, why the guards at Abu Ghraib tortured and humiliated their prisoners?
In a new study, researchers at the Kellogg School, Stanford University and the University of Southern California have found that individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others. According to the study “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.
The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is based on the notions that low status is threatening and aversive, and that power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings. The study was conducted by Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School; Nathanael Fast, an assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business; and Nir Halevy, acting assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“People often think that power and status are one and the same, with more power leading to more status. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true,” says Galinsky. “When power outstrips status, it can lead to demeaning acts of belittlement toward people under that person’s authority.”
To test their theses, the authors conducted an experiment with students who were told they would be interacting with a fellow student in a business exercise. The students were randomly assigned to either a high-status “idea producer” role or low-status “worker” role. Then these individuals were asked to select activities from a list of 10 for the others to perform. Some of the tasks were more demeaning than others.
The experiment demonstrated that individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (for example, “bark like a dog three times”) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.
The research suggests that the possession of power without status may have contributed to the acts committed by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. That incident was reminiscent of behaviors exhibited during the famous Stanford Prison Experiment with undergraduate students that went awry in the early 1970s. In both cases the guards had power, but they lacked respect and admiration in the eyes of others. In both cases, prisoners were treated in extremely demeaning ways.
“The study begins to reveal the psychological underpinnings at play when authority figures demean others,” Galinsky notes. “However, steps can be taken to avoid these adverse effects. Finding ways to make those stuck in high-power roles that lack respect and status to feel valued and personally respected can go a long way toward ‘un-demeaning’ the demeaner.”
Opportunities for advancement may also help. “If an individual knows he or she may gain a higher-status role in the future, or earn a bonus for treating others well, that may help ameliorate their negative feelings and behavior,” Fast said.