Any individual who controls significant resources in an organization holds a tremendous amount of power. Those in subordinate positions seem to have little ability to influence powerholders. In any social situation, there is pressure to be obedient to authority, even when that authority is being abused. Of course, if subordinates join together, they can challenge the person in authority, but if one person speaks truth to power, does it make a difference? Past psychological research has shown that small groups of people can effectively challenge the status quo, but they must remain committed to their point of view. However, we know little about how this dynamic plays out in organizations.
PROVIDING FEEDBACK AND SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
Previous research demonstrates that powerholders want to appear fair, even when they are acting in their own self-interest. This means that they are motivated to change their behavior to increase the perception that they are fair. Based on this research, it seems likely that a lone voice can affect the behavior of a powerholder by speaking to their fairness.
To test this hypothesis, researchers (Oc, Bashshur, & Moore, 2019) conducted three studies. In each of these studies, participants played a computer game where they were given a pool of resources and told to distribute those resources among themselves and subordinates, effectively putting them in a position of power. The more points they kept for themselves, the more they would be paid at the end of the study—motivating them to act in their own self-interest. The participants thought that the subordinates were real people, but in reality the subordinates were simulated by the computer.
During the studies, the computer program simulated one of the subordinates addressing the powerholder’s fairness. Sometimes the computer told the participant they were being unfair in the way they distributed the points. Other times the computer praised the powerholder for being fair. When the computer challenged the powerholders’ fairness, the powerholders acted in a less self-interested way and distributed points more equitably. When the computer praised the powerholders, they acted in a more self-interested way and kept more of the resources for themselves.
In some of the studies, the participants were told that the subordinates belonged to the same social group as them (e.g., the subordinates were students from the same school or members of the same political party). The influence of the lone subordinate voice increased if they belonged to the same social group as the powerholder.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results of this study show that powerholders are more open to feedback from subordinates than many intuitively believe. Even when the feedback offered from subordinates is challenging, it influences the powerholder’s behavior. Notably, those offering a challenging point of view are not penalized by the powerholder, as long as they belong to the same social group as the powerholder.
However, the study also showed that a subordinate who belongs to the same social group as the powerholder could attempt to gain preferential treatment by praising the powerholder’s fairness. This result emphasizes the importance of organizations creating formal protocols for sharing anonymous feedback with powerholders. Powerholders also need to receive training on the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to effectively respond to feedback from subordinates.
Oc, B., Bashshur, M. R., & Moore, C. (2019). Head Above the Parapet: How Minority Subordinates Influence Group Outcomes and the Consequences They Face for Doing so. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(7), 929–945.