When we talk about someone being on a “power trip,” the idea behind it is the abuse they're throwing around somehow makes them feel good. The boss who hands out extra work just before the weekend feels some kind of superiority. The manager who yells at their employees gets some kind of rush from the show of dominance.
But a new study published by the Academy of Management Journal finds that in reality, a boss's explosive behavior or habit of ridiculing subordinates in front of others actually makes them feel pretty awful, too.
Trevor Foulk, an assistant professor at the University of Florida who is soon joining the business faculty at the University of Maryland, says that most studies on “psychological power” — which measures how powerful we feel — only look at how it affects the victim. “The story typically ends there,” he said in an interview. “Here we're flipping the script. When people feel powerful and act on it, it doesn't feel good for them either.”
Foulk studied executive MBA class members, rather than doing lab-based experiments on undergraduate students, who held real manager positions such as executive vice president or director of operations in their day jobs. Each day for two weeks, the 108 participants were sent three surveys a day. The first one, in the morning, often included what Foulk calls a power manipulation — an exercise intended to prime the executives to feel more powerful, such as writing about a time they felt that way or completing exercises using powerful words. A control group didn't receive the power nudge in their morning survey.
Then, in the afternoon, they completed another survey about what kind of behavior they engaged in — did they yell at a co-worker, make fun of an employee, perceive others as acting uncivil to them — during the day. Finally, an evening survey asked them whether they felt competent, respected, in control of themselves, relaxed at home and the like.
What they found: Not only did those who were primed to feel more powerful in the morning engage in more abusive behavior during the day and perceive people were being more uncivil toward them, but they were also more likely to feel worse about themselves and less relaxed at the end of the day. “It made them feel less fulfilled,” Foulk said, and did poorer on important indicators for “need fulfillment” — competence, autonomy and relatedness. “We typically think about victims. But actually, everybody involved suffers.”
One exception to the rule, Foulk said, were bosses who scored high on one of the “big five” psychological traits — agreeableness. They tended to be less affected by the survey manipulations.
“Even when they feel powerful, they're less likely to abuse and perceive incivility of others,” Foulk said. “It highlights the importance of agreeable leaders. It's not only for others, internally, to be better off. The leader himself will be, too. They stop the process,” preventing the cycle of negative feelings that results from abusive behavior on both the victim — and the boss.
In other words, “everybody would benefit,” Foulk said, if companies just hired people who were more empathetic, cooperative, kind and like helping others. Imagine that.