Social Power Affects Leaders, Suggesting Compassion

The Buddha facing U.S. President Richard NixonDuring dinner a while back with an excellent leader in a large company (when eating out was still allowed), I gave him a challenge. We were talking about social power’s unconscious impacts on people. Before stepping away to release some whiskey, I asked him to think about the common behaviors of bad managers he’d had. When I returned, he intoned a list that could have been lifted from my post on the topic.

Much of the manager/worker dynamic is shaped by the psychological effects of having, or not having, power over others. For example, “Low-power individuals are motivated to attend to their high-power counterparts because their counterparts can influence their outcomes,” two scientists wrote.[1] “The reverse is not true for high-power individuals, who are less dependent on their low-power counterparts for goal satisfaction”–or so they convince themselves. People are aware of this and act accordingly. Relatively powerless folks realize the powerful ones are not as motivated to socialize with them, and the powerful predict the powerless will suck up in order to “influence their outcomes.”

Those researchers listed a slew of experiments in which the powerful and less-so behave differently, in pairs and in groups. Now we’ll run an experiment. I’m going to replace what studies call the more-powerful with the words “managers” or “leaders” and the less-powerful with “workers,” using [brackets like this] within direct quotations. You decide whether the results fit your experiences on the job.

Bear in mind that people in those studies usually don’t have any actual power, and are randomly assigned to either feel powerful or not. Often their sense of power is created through only a few minutes of manipulation or “priming.” (That manipulation is ethical, by the way, because subjects agree to it beforehand and are debriefed afterwards.) As you read through this post, imagine how these brief impacts translate to people with actual, prolonged power.

First off, in many studies, managers were less likely to take stock of others’ opinions. On the flip side, workers in negotiation games asked more questions about other people’s needs than did managers.

A small study placed undergraduates randomly into roles of evaluator and evaluated, and another into explicit boss or employee roles. In both, “subordinates were more sensitive than bosses to how their counterpart felt about them.”[2] By the way, women were no more sensitive than men in either study; the role was a better predictor.

Generally speaking “studies have revealed that [leaders] tend to be more approach- or action-oriented, more risk-seeking, less averse to potential losses, and more attentive to goal-relevant information”[3] (citations removed). I thought of a startup founder who could not make a strategic decision if his life depended on it, meaning he was less risk-seeking and more averse to losses. But he was definitely an exception among entrepreneurs I’ve met. And this list helps explain the common complaint, “my boss doesn’t seem to care.” If your complaint doesn’t relate to their goals, they probably don’t care! But having power is contributing to that apathy.

Workers are not as good at delivering information relevant to goals, or at leaving out irrelevant information. No doubt you’ve often heard managers telling people to get to the bottom line, often impatiently. Some researchers argue that is because leaders have fewer constraints on their choices. In contrast, workers must address a wider range of potential threats they don’t have the power to fight, including every manager.[4]

In computer experiments, manager-types focused on relevant cues to answers better than did worker-types. This difference may help explain why workers tend to “perform worse in tasks that involve planning.”[5] But that means worker and team empowerment by itself would increases worker’s planning skills. And simple math says four or 10 good planners are better at it together than any one team leader.

A scientific article noted that managers will “give off distancing signals in their social interactions,” which reduces approaches by workers. You’ve probably seen managers cluster at work parties. In an ironic proof that teambuilding games don’t work, I noticed after a scavenger hunt that the boss who sponsored it was sitting by himself at the bar during the after-party! Having some power as a coach, I sat nearby and got a surprisingly personal conversation while workers made only brief approaches.[6]

Again, in most of those studies above, people weren’t initially aware of their power level. But in most companies, power is transparent. “For instance, some organizations give [managers] obvious markers of their privileged status, such as ostentatious corner offices, top-of-the-line technology, company cars, and special parking spaces…” a research team wrote. “Workers within such organizations find it almost impossible not to notice who has power and who does not.”[7] Of course, another way is simply to notice who wins when decisions conflict.[8]

Managers can derive power a variety of ways: “coercive (the ability to apply punishments), reward (the ability to offer rewards), legitimate (the belief by a target that the other has a right to express power), expert (the belief that the other person has special knowledge), and referent (the identification of a target with the power holder).” The management professor who wrote that split rewards into financial and nonfinancial based on tests with full-time workers. This means a supervisor who isn’t seen as having much control over compensation, for example, may still have power through influence on “promotion, merit recognition, and opportunities for advancement.”[9]

The choice of which levers to pull is not based just on a managers’ values or personality. I’ve written many times about the data proving our behavior in a given moment is driven by a combination of the environment and the situation more than personality. Indeed, when managers communicate or make decisions in ways consistent with their power and autonomy, they are judged more favorably by observers than those who go against the norms.[10] Those norms come from both the larger culture’s expectations of leaders and patterns of behavior within the organization—patterns new managers must mirror in order to move up. One study showed years ago that managers sometimes adopt behaviors they didn’t like in their managers!

Combined with social power’s effects on the brain listed above and the inborn bases by which humans judge moral behavior, a disturbing question emerges: What if many of the bad behaviors of managers as a group aren’t a matter of power bringing out the worst in them as individuals, but rather occur because they joined that group? That is, literally within minutes of gaining extra social power, someone promoted to their first supervisor role probably:

  • Becomes slightly less likely to listen to, or want the approval of, the people who were their peers minutes earlier.
  • Becomes even more focused on the goal that drove them to accept (if not seek) that promotion, and any goals that increase the odds of the next one.
  • Becomes less interested in anything they don’t perceive as directly impacting those goals.
  • Begins enacting scripts expected of managers within the organization, even if they didn’t use (or like) those behaviors before the promotion.
  • Almost instantly becomes defensive of their new power, in words and deeds.

If these points are true, two difficult propositions result for me as a coach. First, I should be more compassionate about why bad management is so pervasive and persistent. The second is that social power’s negative impacts must be overcome to fight it.

As I look into my heart for the former and brain for the latter, I see no easy answers for either.


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[1] Joe C. Magee and Pamela K. Smith, ‘The Social Distance Theory of Power’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17.2 (2013), 158–86 <>.

[2] M. D. Rutherford, ‘The Effect of Social Role on Theory of Mind Reasoning’, British Journal of Psychology, 95.1 (2004), 91–103 <>.

[3] Joe C. Magee and Pamela K. Smith, ‘The Social Distance Theory of Power’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17.2 (2013), 158–86 <>.

[4] Guillermo B. Willis, Rosa Rodríguez-Bailón, and Juan Lupiáñez, ‘The Boss Is Paying Attention: Power Affects the Functioning of the Attentional Networks’, Social Cognition, 29.2 (2011), 166–81 <>.

[5] Guillermo B. Willis, Rosa Rodríguez-Bailón, and Juan Lupiáñez, ‘The Boss Is Paying Attention: Power Affects the Functioning of the Attentional Networks’, Social Cognition, 29.2 (2011), 166–81 <>.

[6] Joe C. Magee and Pamela K. Smith, ‘The Social Distance Theory of Power’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17.2 (2013), 158–86 <>.

[7] Brianna Barker Caza, Larissa Tiedens, and Fiona Lee, ‘Power Becomes You: The Effects of Implicit and Explicit Power on the Self’, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 114.1 (2011), 15–24 <>.

[8] Matthew Minton, ‘Power’, in Sociology of Work: An Encyclopedia, 2 vols (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2013), pp. 701–3 <> [accessed 24 July 2019].

[9] Edward A. Ward, ‘Social Power Bases of Managers: Emergence of a New Factor’, Journal of Social Psychology, 141.1 (2001), 144–47 <>.

[10] Magee and Smith.

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