Harsh Punishment is Meted Out to Subordinates by Powerful People

by Kathy Jones on Feb 17 2013 2:15 PM

 Harsh Punishment is Meted Out to Subordinates by Powerful People
New research suggests that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and 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.

The research by Scott Wiltermuth, a USC Marshall School of Business assistant professor of management and organization, and co-author Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business alerts managers to some unforeseen challenges they will face as they come to hold more and more power.

"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," Wiltermuth said.

"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," he added.

Wiltermuth and Flynn set up four experiments in which they made some individuals feel powerful-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," "no, it is not immoral".

Very few powerful people answered with "it depends," which was a much more popular answer among the less powerful.

Owing to this certainty, the participants made to feel powerful felt that the transgressions deserved harsher punishments.

Significantly, 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. Rather, the findings imply that once you obtain power you become more likely to see things in black-and-white," he said.

These links between power, clarity and punishment can lead to organizational problems in the private and public sector, Wiltermuth said.

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.

The findings are published in the Academy of Management Journal.