Sense of power drives harsh punishments

Last Updated: Sun, Jan 20, 2013 07:50 hrs

Washington, Jan 20 (IANS) A subordinate's seemingly minor breach of rules tends to invite the supervisor's wrath, certain that he is doing the right thing and won't be swayed by arguments. But a research has found that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong.

The research was conducted by Scott Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organization, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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, Academy of Management Journal reports.

The research alerts managers to some unforeseen challenges they will face as they come to hold more and more power, said Wiltermuth, according to a Southern California statement.

"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 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 behaviour 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," said Wiltermuth.

Significantly, the researchers found that moral clarity was more clearly connected to delivering punishments than administering bonuses for good behaviour.

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

Using the US Congress as an example-Wiltermuth pointed 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?" Wiltermuth asked.

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