Taking a New Look at Power

in the Context of Transgressions

Is power a double-edged sword? The answer is Yes according to a recent study conducted by Ece Tuncel, Associate Professor of Management, which shows that powerful people’s emotional expressions are perceived as less authentic in the context of transgressions.

The study, “Power as an Emotional Liability: Implications for Perceived Authenticity and Trust after a Transgression” published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, focused on a series of tests designed to understand why individuals in high power positions are perceived as less authentic and trustworthy than their subordinate counterparts following a transgression. The key findings are:

  • People perceive people in power, namely those above them in an organization, to have greater emotional control and this raises concerns about whether the emotional expressions of those in power are calculated rather than a natural response to the situation.
  • Those in power also typically receive greater benefits from their interactions and thus have more to lose if such relationships were damaged. This perceived strategic motivation raises concerns about the authenticity of their emotional expressions following a transgression.
  • Thus, following a transgression, expressions of remorse and sadness are likely to be met with more suspicion when displayed by those of higher (vs. lower) power in a group and have downstream implications for repairing trust.

Tuncel elaborates “We know from previous research that individuals who attain positions of power tend to be more emotionally skilled than those who have less power in an organization. Indeed, it is the very possession of such skills that help these parties attain and succeed in leadership positions. Yet, this tendency for those in power to be emotionally skilled may not necessarily be beneficial, to the extent that those evaluating such powerful individuals believe their emotional displays are controlled rather than authentic. In a series of studies, we repeatedly found that this is a problem for those in power and has implications for perceived trustworthiness.”

In one of the studies reported in the paper, Tuncel and colleagues asked participants to read about an actual incident in which Toyota Motor Corporation was found to have withheld important details related to a vehicle safety issue that led to lost lives and legal troubles for the firm, and then watch a video of Toyota North America’s CEO expressing sadness while testifying before Congress about the incident. They removed explicit references to this individual’s position at Toyota from the video and manipulated this person’s power in the organization by stating that this individual was either the CEO or a junior staff member. Participants who were told that the individual was a CEO perceived his expression of sadness following the incident as being less authentic than those who were told that the individual was a junior staff member. This is because the participants believed that the CEO would be better at controlling his emotions and had reasons to do so. These perceptions in turn lowered trust in the CEO.

Tuncel notes “Emotional expressions provide information about the transgressor’s sentiments and intentions. If they are perceived as inauthentic, it is problematic. These perceptions could ultimately affect brand reputation, sales, and trust in the organization. Those who are in positions of power should be aware of this biased evaluation and find ways to connect with their audience following a transgression.”