Power Makes Bosses Treat Employees Badly . / Credit: Arrogant Boss Image via Shutterstock

How much power managers perceive they have plays a role in how fairly they treat those who work for them, according to new research.

The study,  recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that managers who have a heightened sense of their power treat others less fairly compared with bosses who see themselves as less powerful.

"Although power and status are often thought of as two sides of the same coin, they, in fact, have opposite effects on the fairness of people’s behavior," said Steven Blader, NYU Stern associate professor of management and organizations. "Unfortunately, there is much less emphasis in organizations on highlighting issues of respect and prestige — factors that drive a person's sense of their own status and would, therefore, encourage fairer treatment towards others."

As part of the study, researchers placed participants in a wide range of roles, providing them with information about the power and status associated with their characters. The research found that participants who had an elevated sense of their power behaved less fairly toward others and made decisions that reflected a weakened concern for fairness, while those who had an elevated sense of their status — and were thus concerned about maintaining their high status — behaved more fairly toward others and made decisions that reflected a far greater concern for fairness.

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Blader said the results have important implications for managers, and for businesses in general, since they help make sense of the factors that determine how fairly or unfairly managers treat their subordinates.

The researchers conclude that a push by organizations to exclusively emphasize things that focus managers on power, such as head count, budget control, bonuses and other economic factors, actually leads those supervisors to treat their subordinates less fairly. In contrast, the study's authors expect that if companies emphasized focusing managers on status, and how peers, subordinates and superiors think of them, it would result in a far more positive impact on fairness and workplace relations.

The study, "Differentiating the Effects of Status and Power: A Justice Perspective," was co-authored by Ya-Ru Chen of Cornell University's Johnson School of Management.

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