Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=143001
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 7:27:00 PM CST
Researchers Nathanael Fast of the University of Southern California and Serena Chen of the University of California, Berkeley, found in a series of studies that it is actually the combination of power and incompetence that can result in bad boss behavior. The paper will be published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.
“It’s not just power that corrupts people and it’s not just incompetence either,” said Fast, the lead author of the study. “It’s the pairing of the two that leads to aggression.”
Over a third of working Americans are estimated to have been bullied—that is, belittled, threatened, humiliated or sabotaged—according to a separate survey of 7,740 workers. And 72 percent of the perpetrators are bosses. The Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group based in Bellingham, Wash., sponsored the national survey.
“Abusive supervision is a major problem in U.S. companies.This is bad because it leads to high turnover and poorer performance,” Fast said. “We wanted to figure out what the mechanisms were that caused the power-holders to abuse their underlings.”
To do so, the researchers conducted four studies with 410 participants.
In one experiment, half of the participants were conditioned to feel powerful by recalling experiences of power over others. The other participants remained neutral as they were made to remember mundane events. Some members from each group were then conditioned to feel competent by recalling an achievement while the rest were conditioned to feel incompetent by recounting a failure.
Afterwards, the participants’ propensity for bullying was measured using a noise-blast horn, a tool used by psychologists to gauge aggression. The participants were instructed to select the decibel levels of the horn blasts to be used when strangers made mistakes. The volume of the noise blasts revealed how aggressive the participants were.
“The people in the high-power condition who also felt incompetent were the ones who exposed these strangers to high-noise blasts,” Fast said. “None of the other groups did.”
Ruth McKay, an organizational behavior specialist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, said the study has timely implications on workplace conduct.
“I find the results very interesting especially in today’s environment where baby boomers are exiting the workplace and there may be employees that are promoted too quickly without training to fill the gaps,” she said. “They may use aggression as a response if challenged.”
Adam Galinsky, a management and organization professor at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, expressed concern about thrusting unprepared people into leadership positions as well.
“Organizations need to train people for leadership,” he said. “They need to not only give skills but to also provide a sense of ‘I know what I am doing.’”