New research has found that providing a sense of power to someone tends to instill a black-and-white sense of right and wrong — especially wrong.
Once armed with this “moral clarity,” powerful people perceive wrongdoing with much less ambiguity, leading them to punish those they see as wrongdoers with more severity than people without power would.
This according to researchers Scott Wiltermuth, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
The findings should alert managers to some unforeseen challenges they may face as they come to hold more power, according to Wiltermuth.
“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 noted.
“We found the same phenomenon when we made other people feel powerful, and we also found the resulting clarity led people to punish questionable behavior more severely. That link between power and more severe punishment could cause a huge problem for managers. What a manager sees as appropriate punishment could be seen as absolutely draconian by other people.”
The researchers set up four experiments in which they made some individuals feel powerful by 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, the behavior is immoral” or “no, it is not immoral,” the researchers found.
Very few powerful people answered with “it depends,” which was a much more popular answer among the less powerful, the researchers note, adding, “Owing to this certainty, the participants made to feel powerful felt that the transgressions deserved harsher punishments.”
However, the researchers found that moral clarity was more clearly connected to delivering punishments than administering bonuses for good behavior.
“Our findings do not imply that having this moral clarity leads people to obtain power,” Wiltermuth said. “Rather, the findings imply that once you obtain power you become more likely to see things in black-and-white.”
This black-and-white thinking and the resulting link between power and punishment could lead to problems in both the public and private sector, according to Wiltermuth.
He notes that 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, Wiltermuth uses the U.S Congress as an example, pointing to the dead certainty in which elected officials often make their case.
“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,” he said.
Wiltermuth said he is continuing his research, with an emphasis on exploring “how we can reduce this moral clarity and create a healthy sense of doubt.”
The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.