Absolute Power Corrupts ... Sometimes


By Liz Nelson

Power and status have often been treated interchangeably, but Ya-Ru Chen, Nicholas H. Noyes Professor of Management, has shown in her paper with co-author Steven L. Blader (New York University), “Differentiating the Effects of Status and Power: A Justice Perspective” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2012), that power and status are distinctly different topics, and often have opposite effects.

Chen became interested in this topic when she wanted to study status in cross-cultural interactions, but discovered that the different effects of power and status were not well understood in the existing academic literature. She noted that many researchers have viewed status as just a component of power, when it actually has an important and often opposite effect. Chen defines status as the prestige and respect others ascribe to an individual, and asserts that status is very important as a “constant that influences all interactions.” She notes that “the status effect is driven by other-focus” — that is, one’s concern with others’ opinions and needs.

In contrast, Chen defines power as control over critical resources and outcomes, and therefore as less reliant on the opinions and respect of others. “Power frees you from constraints,” Chen says, noting that power allows you to act according to your own desires, whether those desires are beneficial to others or not.

This distinction is important because it helps explain why high-status and high-power individuals might act differently. Individuals wishing to maintain high-status are likely to be more concerned about others’ impressions and perspectives, and seek outcomes that will portray them as respectable and worthy of continued status. In contrast, power is based much less on the perceptions of others, so high-power individuals are expected to be less concerned about the treatment of others.  The potential conflict between status and power is apparent when we consider whether leaders care about justice. Status should encourage a tendency to act justly, while power could discourage that.

Chen’s and Blader’s research began with the preliminary question of whether and how status and power affect people who have those characteristics, and how both characteristics affect interactions with others. They conducted five experiments that were set in both allocation and negotiation contexts. The authors examine the effects of power and status on distributive justice (how fairly resources or benefits are allocated) and procedural justice (how fairly decisions are made and communicated and the quality of treatment of the subjects affected by these decision-making processes).

Blader and Chen found that when roles were framed in more high-status terms, participants were more likely to allocate money relatively equally between themselves and others. Participants in high-status roles also communicated negative news more empathetically, were less likely to make the first offer in a negotiation setting, and were more likely to compromise in productive ways. All five studies consistently showed that status is positively associated with justice, while power is negatively associated with it.

One of the most interesting results of Chen’s research is that the positive effect of status on justice is apparent when power is low, but not when it is high. This indicates that: “While status and power are indeed distinct dimensions, when both are present, power may be a more dominant force than status. That is, power appears to override the effect of status on justice behaviors toward others.”

This research has many possible applications to management strategies and negotiations. “If managers were encouraged more based on status, not power, the outcomes would be different,” says Chen. However, she notes that while much has been written on managing with power, very little research has considered managing with status, so more research is necessary.  She also emphasizes that the effects of power and status may vary when an individual has actually earned the power or status, as would be the case in a real-world setting. Chen is further exploring this topic in new research.