More influence over others doesn’t lead to increased autonomy
The view from the top doesn’t come with an increased sense of personal freedom, a new study says.
Gaining elevated influence over others in a social context — like climbing up the corporate ladder, for example — does not lead to feelings of greater autonomy, according to research published in the Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology. The implication, the authors said, is that people might have “overly optimistic” ideas on what it’s like to wield power.
The study, conducted by researchers from the UK’s University of Kent and Germany’s University of Cologne, also found that low personal power (or being controlled by others) coincided with low influence “and hence a lack of social power” (or a lack of ability to control employees, for example).
The authors conducted two studies: In one, almost 800 participants from the U.S., India, UK and Germany recalled and described situations in which they’d wielded control over others, wielded no control over others, were not controlled by others or were controlled by others. They then indicated how influential and autonomous they’d felt in the situations they described.
The other study — conducted through an online survey — asked 266 people how much influence and control they believed they exerted over others and how much control they felt they had over their own lives. Those findings suggested that “the association between social and personal power grew stronger for lower levels of power and became weaker for higher levels of power,” they wrote.
One potential explanation could be that modern Western workplaces stress a “democratic exercise of positions of power” and most leadership philosophies urge leaders to listen to their followers. “Although these approaches are certainly beneficial to organizations, they undoubtedly restrain leaders in their experience of autonomy,” the authors wrote.
“Modern evaluation procedures” may also play a role, as they’ve decreased middle- and even top-level managers’ level of autonomy and exposed them to greater scrutiny from others within the company, the researchers said. “Such developments may explain why having greater social power and in general being higher in the hierarchy does not increase feelings of personal power,” they wrote.
The study followed 2016 research — also co-authored by the University of Cologne’s Joris Lammers, who worked on the present study — that suggested people want power “not to be a master over others, but to be master of their own domain, to control their own fate.”
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