When the Powerful Feel Incompetent, the Rest of Us Feel Their Wrath

boss-yellingYou’re sitting at your desk when the phone rings. It’s your boss and he wants to see you in his office.  You’re not sure why – nothing in particular comes to mind that would put you in his crosshairs. In fact, you’ve actually been doing a great job lately. Even your boss’s boss mentioned that you were doing outstanding work in a staff meeting the other day, right in front of everyone, including your boss. What could possibly be the problem?

You walk into his office, sit down, and are immediately awash in the most inappropriate display of yelling you’ve ever seen in the workplace. It’s hard to follow all of the criticisms he’s throwing at you, but you make out “incompetent,” “unresponsive” and “careless” amidst a caravan of expletives. The source of the criticism, you finally realize, is a small error you made in a report—something likely no one else even noticed. How could that bring on all of this?

Or…is that really the source of this reaction? Then you remember the look on your boss’s face when his boss sung your praises in the staff meeting. Suddenly this makes sense—he was threatened, and now he’s found one thing to aggressively nail you on.  

It’s no surprise that power and aggression often move along the same track. In particular, the threat of losing power is like striking a match near the aggression gun powder keg.  Studies have shown that the perceived need to protect one’s power kicks ego defenses into high gear, loaded with enough aggression to regret for a lifetime.

This is, of course, personality specific. Not everyone is going to react this way, but a generous number of people do. According to a 2007 study of American workers, 37% (about 54 million people) have been bullied at work, defined as “sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled” by their bosses.  We know that much of this comes from the kind of defensiveness shown by the boss in the scenario above, but what’s really brewing below the surface of the boss’s psyche to elicit this extreme a reaction?  

A new study in the journal Psychological Science took on this question from an intriguing angle: could it be that a lack of perceived self competence triggers aggression among the powerful?  Power increases the degree to which people feel they must be competent, to fill the demands that come with a high position and to hold onto the position against would-be challengers. If someone in power doesn’t really think he or she is competent enough (or fears they might not be and thinks someone may eventually see through them) then any perceived threat could spark an aggressive reaction – or so this study wanted to test.

Researchers conducted four experiments to test the hypothesis. In the first, they established a basic correlation between power and aggression by having 90 professionals from various fields complete an authority survey (to determine their level of power); the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale (which measures how people think about others’ evaluations of them); and the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionaire (which measures things like argumentativeness, likelihood of physical reaction, etc).  The result was that the higher the level of perceived incompetence, the higher the level of associated aggression. Again, this was just a straight correlation – no data manipulation. 

The next three experiments took the study farther. In the second, researchers examined peoples’ responses to a primed power role. Assigned roles of varying authority, participants were asked to complete a survey to determine their level of perceived self competence. They were then asked to determine how loud a sound blast should be used as a penalty for undergraduate students who answer questions incorrectly on an upcoming experiment (a fabricated prop for the study).  The results: for those in high-power roles who had low perceived self competence, the sound blast level was significantly higher than for people with a high level of self competence. More sound, more aggression.     

In the third experiment, participants were first evaluated to determine their level of perceived self competence, and then were asked to complete a “leadership aptitude test.” Some of the participants were given scores indicating that they have excellent leadership skills, and some were told that they had average leadership skills (in other words, some got a self-worth boost and some didn’t). 

They were then divided into two-partner groups and told that they’d be competing for a $20 prize with their partners based on scores they earned from taking an intelligence test, with the twist that one partner would chose from a selection of easy to hard tests for their partner to take. They were also advised that whether or not the partner won $20 would not affect the other person from winning $20 (both could win).  The results: by a wide margin, participants who had low perceived self competence and did not receive a self-worth boost opted to punish their partners by selecting the hardest IQ tests, indicating a significantly higher level of aggression.

Taken together, the findings from these experiments (including the fourth, not described here for sake of post length) point to a strong conclusion: people in positions of power who do not perceive themselves as competent are far more likely to aggressively lash out against others.  The result is ironic, because we typically think of those who attain power as being especially competent – how else can they get so far?  But what this study suggests is that power may enhance self critique of competence, and the more someone questions whether they really have what it takes to be in power, the more threatened they’ll feel by any number of situations and people, and aggression too often follows.

Fast, N., & Chen, S. (2009). When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02452.x

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Filed under About Research

7 responses to “When the Powerful Feel Incompetent, the Rest of Us Feel Their Wrath

  1. Great post, David, and a great find.

    We’ve all been there, and the experimental manipulations in this study to get at the underlying dynamics are really clever.

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