Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When the boss feels inadequate - power, incompetence, and aggression

Fast and Chen note that a startling 37% of American workers—roughly 54 million people—have been bullied at work, primarily having been sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled by their bosses . This statistic resonates with research showing a link between social power and aggression (i.e., acts aimed at harming other individuals, physically or otherwise). However, it also indicates that the link between power and aggression is not universal—after all, 63% of American workers have not been bullied at work. These observations raise an intriguing pair of questions: When are power holders most likely to behave aggressively, and why do they do so? Their abstract (PDF here):
When and why do power holders seek to harm other people? The present research examined the idea that aggression among the powerful is often the result of a threatened ego. Four studies demonstrated that individuals with power become aggressive when they feel incompetent in the domain of power. Regardless of whether power was measured in the workplace, manipulated via role recall, or assigned in the laboratory, it was associated with heightened aggression when paired with a lack of self-perceived competence. As hypothesized, this aggression appeared to be driven by ego threat: Aggressiveness was eliminated among participants whose sense of self-worth was boosted. Taken together, these findings suggest that (a) power paired with self-perceived incompetence leads to aggression, and (b) this aggressive response is driven by feelings of ego defensiveness. Implications for research on power, competence, and aggression are discussed.

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