Ethics & Power

With this line of research that builds upon my dissertation research I aim to provide a more balanced understanding of the effects of power and whether and how power could be used to advance well-being.

Not a day goes by without some form of ethical scandal populating the news. The culprits for misbehaving are often individuals in leadership positions, who have inordinate power. Reflecting such daily reality, a substantial body of research shows that the possession of power affects how individuals behave. However, apart from a few notable exceptions, such research suffers from one inherent limitation: the majority of past experimental work has focused on hypothetical power or recalled experience of power, rather than the actual exercise of power. Results from an incentivized group experiment revealed that the mere possession of power in terms of control over more versus fewer followers decreased leaders’ principled moral reasoning (i.e., the cognitive structures that drive a prosocial reasoning in solving moral dilemmas), which enabled leaders to engage in self-interested behavior. In contrast, the exercise of power in terms of dividing more versus fewer financial pay-outs enabled leaders to engage in self-interested behavior but, surprisingly, their principled moral reasoning did not decrease. This work is currently in the second round of revision at The Leadership Quarterly.

In another project led by Xue Zheng and published in Human Relations, we explored the contingent effect of power in shaping the effectiveness of an apology. Across three studies using different research designs (i.e., critical incidents, forced recall, and a laboratory experiment) we found that high power transgressors’ apology (as opposed to no apology) is ineffective in increasing forgiveness from low power victims because their behaviors are perceived to be cynical. It is therefore highly important that in the face of transgressions, leaders aim to provide a substantial apology and not just a simple (or empty) “I’m sorry”, whereas subordinates are aware of the implicit biases that they hold about those in high power positions, such as perceiving their actions to be cynical.