Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: Does power corrupt or enable? When and why power facilitates self-interested behavior
Authors: DeCelles, K. A., DeRue, D. S., Margolis, J. D., Ceranic, T. L.
Reviewed by: Larry Martinez
It’s the plot of half the movies you’ve ever seen: an individual gains great power and (seemingly as a result of the power itself) becomes evil. Thus, power has come to be known as something that is both alluring and very dangerous. Within organizations, those with power can have enormous impact on the future of the company (by definition). However, each individual with power is faced with an important choice: use the power for the common good of the organization, or use it for one’s personal gain. This is the topic of research by DeCelles and colleagues (2012).
The researchers wanted to find the answer to the question, “Who is susceptible to being corrupted by power?” They found (in two studies) that when participants were made to feel powerful, those who had virtuous moral identities were less likely (than their ‘morally corrupt’ counterparts) to act in self-interested ways and more likely to act in ways that benefitted the greater good. In other words, those who have strong senses of right and wrong are more likely to use their power for good.
These studies also suggest that those who are aware of the morality inherent in the situation are more or less likely to act in ways that coincide with their moral identities (e.g., “This is a situation in which morals come into play. I see myself as moral, therefore I will act in a moral way”). So, someone who describes him/herself as moral when describing his/her identity is more likely to be aware of morality when given power and thus more likely to act in benevolent ways.
So, power in and of itself doesn’t always corrupt. However, it allows corrupt people to express their inner ’corruptness’ more freely (or allows the virtuous to express their goodness). In other words, power super-charges the inherent moral/corrupt tendencies that are already there and result in behaviors that can have significant impact across an organization. This means that organizations might place particular emphasis on candidates’ morality when making promotion decisions and emphasize the importance of morality in their incumbent leaders. Like Peter Parker’s Uncle Bob famously said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
DeCelles, K. A., DeRue, D. S., Margolis, J. D., Ceranic, T. L. (2012). Does power corrupt or enable? When and why power facilitates self-interested behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 681-689.
human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management