In search of power equilibrium

Employees’ fear of the boss suppresses healthy debate
By Jennifer Berdahl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/23/2003


n Jan. 13, 1982, Washington, D.C. was hit by one of the worst blizzards in years, closing National Airport for much of the day. When Air Florida flight 90 was finally given clearance for take-off late that afternoon the captain elected not to follow standard de-icing procedures.

During take-off, the first officer noticed something strange and said, “That doesn’t seem right, does it? … That’s not right.” The captain asserted, “Yes it is…” and the first officer began to question his own judgment, “Naw, I don’t think that’s right…maybe it is…I don’t know.”

Less than one minute later, the plane slammed into the 14th Street Bridge, killing five people before crashing into the Potomac River killing another 69 passengers and crew.

This is a dramatic illustration of the problems that can arise from workplace power dynamics.

In almost every workplace setting, the need for efficient decision-making and a clear chain-of-command to assign responsibility requires hierarchies in which a few individuals have power over others.

If power is in any way assigned (or perceived to be assigned) arbitrarily — on the basis of luck, connections or discrimination — organizational hierarchies will be seen as unjust, hurting employee motivation and performance, and leading to tension, resentment, and even sabotage, as employees attempt to correct the perceived inequities. However, recent research has also demonstrated that even when power differences are legitimate, power discrepancies can lead to undesirable outcomes.

In a study I conducted with my colleague Cameron Anderson from Chicago’s Northwestern University, several hundred people were randomly assigned to supervisor and subordinate roles, but were led to believe the assignments were based on past performance.

Time and again, supervisors openly expressed their opinions while subordinates withheld theirs during a decision-making task. This hesitancy of subordinates to express opinions can weaken decisions because not all perspectives and ideas are expressed and taken into account.

In the case of Air Florida flight 90, the power dynamic between the captain and his first officer encouraged the officer to question the validity of his opinions, with fatal results.

The hesitancy of subordinates to offer their own ideas during a discussion is also likely to detract from their performance and may hinder their chances of being seen as high contributors and of being promoted — though this depends on whether obsequiousness or originality is rewarded in a given organization.

Subordinates presumably inhibit themselves when their ideas differ from the bosses’ because they fear that the bosses will use their power to retaliate against them in some way — by withholding rewards or administering punishments.

This points to the importance of not having vindictive or overly authoritative supervisors who only want “yes men” working for them. This style of supervision compromises decision-making, creativity, and the quality of products coming out of units led in this way, ultimately weakening organizational performance (not to mention increasing turnover and lowering employee morale).

As much management research has found, creating a sense of psychological safety and a non-judgmental atmosphere is critical to creativity and effective decision-making.

Another interesting result from the supervisor-subordinate study was that subordinates overestimate how negatively their supervisors feel about them, while supervisors do just the opposite: they underestimate how negatively subordinates feel about them.

Individuals lacking power are especially attuned to potentially negative information and may err on the side of assuming that those in positions of power are displeased with them. These people tend to go overboard to appease the powerful by smiling at them much more often, being more polite, writing longer and more flowery e-mails, and agreeing with them more often (even when they disagree).

Those with power, on the other hand, are less likely to be concerned about others’ feelings and more likely to wrongly assume the best. Why is it important to be aware of these power dynamics? A lack of awareness about how power affects perceptions and behaviour can lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings.

For example, John Bargh and colleagues at the University of Minnesota suggest that sexual harassment may result in part from misunderstandings of these power relations.

For example, a male supervisor may overestimate a female subordinates’ interest in him based on her friendly and appeasing behaviour, which may really be motivated by their difference in power.

This, in turn, may lead him to make advances toward her that he believes are welcome, whereas she experiences them as threatening and unwelcome. But instead of responding with a firm “no,” she is more likely to use friendly and appeasing tactics to avoid the negative repercussions she fears may ensue from a strong and clear refusal.

Other research I have conducted on small, self-directed work groups similarly demonstrates that those developing steep power imbalances, with a handful of people exercising authority over others, have lower levels of performance, worse interpersonal relations between team members, and lower group morale.

Likewise, Matt Bloom at the University of Notre Dame has demonstrated that when salary discrepancies between baseball players on a team were higher, and when some members had much higher status on the team than others — thus creating a power discrepancy between team members — the team was likely to play less co-operatively and to perform worse.

All of this suggests that steep status and power hierarchies reflecting extreme differences between top-performers or executives and other employees may actually exacerbate the performance differences upon which they are based and undermine team effort, morale and performance.

That said, power hierarchies between individuals and within groups and organizations may nonetheless reap more benefits than costs in terms of efficiency and the assignment of responsibility, depending on the task at hand. For example, a military platoon may benefit from a strong chain-of-command, where input from a broad range of platoon members is not helpful, whereas a team of product designers may perform better with a flat and democratic structure that encourages input from everyone.

Cultural and individual differences also factor in to how much people embrace power differences.

Research demonstrates that people from cultures in which inequality is both expected and desired, and where might prevails over right — the Philippines, Mexico and Arab countries are examples — tend to actually prefer clear and strong power hierarchies at work, and to be uncomfortable with the ambiguities involved in more egalitarian structures. Much research also shows that men are more likely to favour and develop social hierarchies than women. Work groups of men are marked by more centralized status hierarchies, whereas women’s groups prefer to divide work and responsibility on a more egalitarian basis.

In any work setting it is important for everyone to consider what kind of hierarchy may best suit each task and the workers involved, and be aware of how power differences shape individual behaviour and perceptions. Keeping these things in mind should minimize the misunderstandings, performance detriments, and other costs incurred from power inequalities at work.

Supervisors who find subordinates easily agreeing with them, flattering their ideas, and acting friendly, should be reminded that: these behaviours may be based on genuine feelings, but they could also be largely driven by the subordinate’s sense of power imbalance.

If the supervisor is interested in the employee’s true feelings and opinions, she should try to minimize the power distance between herself and the employee. Rather than sitting in a large chair behind a desk, she should sit in an identical chair across from the other person. Reminders of her power should be discouraged (“When I was lunching with the president the other day…”), and employees should never be threatened implicitly or explicitly with retaliations (“My letter of recommendation helped to get so-and-so that job.”).

But a manager should also be honest about how comfortable she is with equality — if she really does want deference and admiration and will retaliate if it’s not forthcoming, she’ll be a wolf in sheep’s clothing by disarming subordinates in this way.

Similarly, employees in relatively powerless positions should keep in mind that they’re likely to overemphasize the threat involved in the interaction. The person with power is likely to feel more positively about them than they think. If they are confident in what they have to say, not only will better decisions get made, but their career may be the better off for it.

Jennifer Berdahl is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. She can be contacted at (416) 978-4273 or

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