Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Onlookers see people who break rules as more powerful

Power relations are a feature of every workplace, particularly those with formal ranks and explicit hierarchies. Holding power means greater freedom to act, and this can have consequences on behaviour such as ignoring societal norms. As an example, one wonderful experiment revealed that powerful people are more likely than others to take more biscuits from a plate, eat with their mouths open and spread crumbs. Gerban van Kleef and colleagues from two Amsterdam universities set out to explore something with implications for how individuals gain positions of power: are people who break the rules considered more powerful by onlookers?

Across four studies, the evidence suggests that they are. The first two studies involved reading about scenarios, one where someone in a waiting room helped themselves to the staff coffee urn, another where a book-keeper overruled a trainee's concerns about a financial anomaly. In each case, a control group were given a matching scenario that lacked the norm violation, and in each case, the transgressing individuals were rated as both more norm violating and more powerful.

A further study showed identical effects in a real situation, where of two confederates sharing a waiting room, the one who violated more norms (arrived late, threw his bag on the table) was perceived as more powerful. This and the book-keeper study also demonstrated that ratings of 'volitional capacity' – the freedom to act as you please – were higher in the unethical condition, and appeared to be the route by which transgression lead to perceptions of power. That is, we consider transgressors powerful because they show more capacity to act freely.

One further study employed video and added an indirect measure of power, based on the observation that powerful people tend to respond with anger, not sadness, to negative events. A film shows a person making an order in a café, either civilly or (in the transgression condition) treating the waiter and café environment brusquely, for example by tapping ash onto the floor. Participants rated the transgressing person as more powerful, and when they were then told that the food that arrived was not what he ordered, were more likely to expect him to react angrily.

I have a quibble with the video study: it's possible that in the transgression condition the actor employed micro-expressions or tone of voice to convey impatience, sternness or other markers that might imply latent anger. The article doesn't provide ratings of emotion prior to the revelation of the wrong order, so this remains a possibility.

Nonetheless the strong evidence amassed here is sobering. In the authors' words: “as individuals gain power, they experience increased freedom to violate prevailing norms. Paradoxically, these norm violations may not undermine the actor's power but instead augment it, thus fuelling a self-perpetuating cycle of power and immorality”. Workplaces might consider how to foster environments where it is safe to call out abuses of power, both major and petty, in order to interrupt these cycles and stop the sour cream rising to the top.

(A freely available copy of the article is available here.)

ResearchBlogging.orgVan Kleef, G., Homan, A., Finkenauer, C., Gundemir, S., & Stamkou, E. (2011). Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611398416

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