Leadership Sep 6, 2016

How to Help Pre­vent the Pow­er­ful from Abus­ing Their Privilege

High expec­ta­tions for eth­i­cal behav­ior can keep pow­er­ful peo­ple in line.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Miao Hu

Derek D. Rucker

Adam D. Galinsky

The 2001 Enron scan­dal is a study in cor­rup­tion and greed among the upper ech­e­lons of cor­po­rate executives.

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Exec­u­tives at Enron — at the time the sev­enth-largest com­pa­ny in the U.S. and a dar­ling of Wall Street — lied relent­less­ly about the company’s finan­cial con­di­tion, push­ing it into bank­rupt­cy. While exec­u­tives in the know sold their stock before the share price plum­met­ed, many thou­sands of low­er-lev­el employ­ees lost their life savings.

These events beg an impor­tant ques­tion: How can we pre­vent those in pow­er from abus­ing their priv­i­lege? Although this is a dif­fi­cult prob­lem to solve, per­haps encour­ag­ing pow­er hold­ers to con­sid­er how they should act can help curb uneth­i­cal behavior.

To under­stand the trans­for­ma­tive effects of pos­sess­ing or lack­ing pow­er, researchers have focused on the psy­chol­o­gy of feel­ing pow­er­ful or pow­er­less. Now, new research from the Kel­logg School indi­cates that chang­ing the way we frame the expec­ta­tions of those in pow­er could be one vari­able in the equa­tion of chang­ing behavior.

Peo­ple say pow­er cor­rupts … but it’s not just about hav­ing pow­er. It’s what comes to mind with that power.”

Pow­er has long been linked in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion with skirt­ing — if not out­right reject­ing — the rules of moral­i­ty. Indeed, pri­or research finds that the expe­ri­ence of pow­er can increase people’s uneth­i­cal behav­ior. But research by mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor Derek Ruck­er sug­gests that pow­er need not inevitably cor­rupt. Pow­er can be accom­pa­nied by expec­ta­tions of how oth­ers believe pow­er should be wield­ed. And, if peo­ple focus on the expec­ta­tion that pow­er should be used eth­i­cal­ly, Ruck­er and his col­leagues find that peo­ple are more like­ly to behave ethically.

We’ve been inter­est­ed for a long time in how a sense of hav­ing or lack­ing pow­er affects the psy­che,” Ruck­er says. There’s this long-held lay belief that pow­er cor­rupts, so we’ve been prob­ing and push­ing at that idea in dif­fer­ent ways. We real­ly want to pick it apart and ask: When is that belief true and when is it not true?”

Pow­er Does Not Always Corrupt

Ruck­er and his col­leagues, Miao Hu at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai’i at Manoa and Adam D. Galin­sky at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, con­duct­ed a series of exper­i­ments to bet­ter under­stand the rela­tion­ship between pow­er and uneth­i­cal behavior.

In one study, the researchers sur­veyed 202 par­tic­i­pants about the expec­ta­tions they had of pow­er­ful peo­ple. Par­tic­i­pants were asked how those with and with­out pow­er do behave — their descrip­tive expec­ta­tions” of pow­er— and how those with and with­out pow­er should behave — their pre­scrip­tive expec­ta­tions” of power.

When asked how peo­ple actu­al­ly do behave, peo­ple say those with pow­er are more like­ly to behave uneth­i­cal­ly,” Ruck­er says.

This is con­sis­tent with the old adage that pow­er cor­rupts. How­ev­er, when asked about their pre­scrip­tive expec­ta­tions, our par­tic­i­pants said that pow­er­ful peo­ple should behave more eth­i­cal­ly than those with­out power.”

Next, the researchers looked at whether these dif­fer­ent expec­ta­tions could be used to shape par­tic­i­pants’ own respons­es to a hypo­thet­i­cal moral quandary.

Ruck­er and col­leagues assigned par­tic­i­pants to either tem­porar­i­ly feel pow­er­ful or pow­er­less by recall­ing a time they pos­sessed or lacked pow­er. The researchers also asked par­tic­i­pants to think about what oth­ers expect­ed them to do in that role, which empha­sizes descrip­tive expec­ta­tions, or what oth­ers would hope or ide­al­ly wish they would do, which empha­sizes pre­scrip­tive expec­ta­tions. Final­ly, par­tic­i­pants read a sce­nario about a Star­bucks cus­tomer who acci­den­tal­ly received an extra $10 in change. Instead of let­ting the cashier know about the mis­take, the cus­tomer pock­ets the cash. Par­tic­i­pants were asked to rate how like­ly they would be to pock­et the extra mon­ey if they were the cus­tomer in the same situation.

When peo­ple focused on the descrip­tive expec­ta­tions of pow­er, those in a high-pow­er state indi­cat­ed they would be more like­ly to com­mit the uneth­i­cal act com­pared with those in the low-pow­er state. This sup­ports the idea that pow­er cor­rupts. How­ev­er, for par­tic­i­pants focused on pre­scrip­tive expec­ta­tions, the effect reversed; those in a high-pow­er state were less like­ly to indi­cate they would engage in the uneth­i­cal behavior.

The results excit­ed us,” Ruck­er states. They pro­vid­ed evi­dence, albeit pre­lim­i­nary, that pow­er may not always cor­rupt one’s behavior.”

But would these results hold in an exper­i­ment with actu­al mon­ey at stake? The researchers decid­ed to find out.

Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents came into the lab to play a game that entailed rolling a 20-sided die five times and self-report­ing the total of the rolls. A high­er total gave them a bet­ter chance of win­ning a $50 Ama­zon gift card in a lot­tery. Before­hand, the stu­dents went through the exer­cise of either tem­porar­i­ly feel­ing pow­er­ful or pow­er­less, and of think­ing about either the descrip­tive or pre­scrip­tive expec­ta­tions of power.

Because the expect­ed aver­age out­come of the die rolls was known to be 52.5, aver­ages above this num­ber sug­gest poten­tial cheat­ing. Stu­dents placed in a state of high pow­er with a descrip­tive focus (mean­ing they were think­ing about what peo­ple actu­al­ly do) report­ed an aver­age die role of 63, sug­ges­tive of cheat­ing. How­ev­er, when stu­dents were placed in a high-pow­er state with a pre­scrip­tive focus, they report­ed an aver­age die role of 53.6, sug­ges­tive of lit­tle, if any, cheating.

Curb­ing Uneth­i­cal Behavior

While the results are excit­ing, Ruck­er is upfront about the lim­i­ta­tions of the research.

We haven’t pinned down the mech­a­nism per se, and it’s impor­tant to work on that. But, one thought we have is that this is about the type of infor­ma­tion that is acces­si­ble to a per­son,” Ruck­er says. Peo­ple say pow­er cor­rupts your mind and how you see the world — but it’s not just about hav­ing pow­er. It’s what comes to mind with that power.”

The results of these stud­ies may serve as a start­ing point for curb­ing uneth­i­cal behav­ior in polit­i­cal and cor­po­rate orga­ni­za­tions. For exam­ple, work­shops might be imple­ment­ed that show­case lead­ers who have faced tough choic­es and behaved eth­i­cal­ly. Awards or recog­ni­tion could be giv­en to con­stant­ly rein­force a link between pow­er and doing the right thing.” The basic idea is think­ing about how to change the envi­ron­ment so it rein­forces the right behavior.

Although untest­ed, Ruck­er is inter­est­ed in whether an oppor­tune time to inter­vene is when some­one is switch­ing from a posi­tion of low pow­er to one of high power.

It’s just a thought exper­i­ment right now, but I won­der if there’s a crit­i­cal time to implant the right type of expec­ta­tions,” he says.

Maybe when peo­ple first acquire pow­er is the time to warn them of the dark side and focus them on oth­ers’ expec­ta­tions to set a prop­er standard.”

Featured Faculty

Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Co-chair of Faculty Research

About the Writer

Meeri Kim is a freelance science and health writer.

About the Research

Hu, Miao, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky. 2016 “From the Immoral to the Incorruptible: How Prescriptive Expectations Turn the Powerful into Paragons of Virtue.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 42(6): 826–837.

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