Power and punishment

Power makes people judge more harshly

Man shouting
People in power judge more harshly the same wrongdoing than people without power would

Often, junior employees in an organisation feel surprised when a supervisor reacts so sharply to a subordinate’s seemingly minor transgression. On the other hand, the supervisor who punishes them seems to be absolutely sure that the punishment was right.

Scott Wiltermuth and Francis Flynn, two researchers from two reputed business schools, have discovered that having a sense of power promotes a black-or-white sense of right and wrong [especially wrong]. There are no greys, “this is wrong and in no way can it be right”. This moral “clarity” makes powerful people perceive wrongdoing with much less ambiguity than people lacking this power, and they punish apparent wrong-doers with more severity than people without power would.

Wiltermuth and Flynn set up four experiments in which they made some individuals feel powerful—giving them the discretion to control resources and give rewards or punishments. When presented with instances of transgressions, the powerful participants were more likely to decide “yes, the behaviour is immoral,” or “no, it is not immoral”.

Very limited number of powerful people answered “it depends,” the more popular answer among the less powerful. Because of this certainty that power brought along, the participants felt that the transgressions deserved harsher punishments.

Also, moral clarity was clearly connected to delivering punishments than administering bonuses for good behaviour. “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,” Wiltermuth,USC Marshall School of Business assistant professor of management and organization, said.

This association of power, moral clarity and punishment can lead to quite a few problems in the private and public sector companies, Wiltermuth warned. People without power could protest against a manager’s decisions and that can erode the manager’s authority and ability to operate.

The research signals unforeseen challenges that managers will face as they come to hold more and more power. This research report appears in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.



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