The more managers and leaders identify with a group, the more responsibility they’re likely to feel

“…in this world, with great power there must also come great responsibility”

Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spiderman’s first appearance)

Research recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology explored the extent to which a person in power identifies with a group may impact the amount of responsibility they feel toward that group.

From an organisational perspective, this has implications for those in hierarchical positions of power – namely managers and leaders. Indeed, power is often seen as a critical dimension of leadership and the two terms can be used interchangeably.

In his book, Power: The inner experience, David McClelland proposed that power can be responsibly sought and used. The need for power (or ‘n Pow’ as he referred to it) is defined as the desire to have an impact on others. What this impact might be, however, is up for debate.

The research by the joint Dutch, German and Australian team fills a gap in the literature by focusing on those in power (as opposed to the powerless) and the extent to which they feel a responsibility toward the group. This is important when considering that part of feeling responsibility toward a group includes caring about its members’ welfare, as well as achievements.

The research

Building on research about social power and Henri Tajfel’s & John Turner’s work on social identity, two studies were conducted to explore power, identification with and responsibility toward the group.

Study one

119 participants answered a 10-minute online survey about their experienced power, the social identity they had toward their organisations and the amount of perceived responsibility they felt. Participants were in real-life power positions, namely managers and leaders.

Study two

115 participants underwent an experiment in a controlled laboratory setting. Participants were students and were randomly assigned in to conditions from a 2 x 2 model (low or high social identity; and low or high social power).

Key findings

  • In both studies, power-holders perceived more responsibility toward the group than those low in power when their identity with the group was high.
  • In study one, power-holders viewed misuse of power more favourably when their identification with the group was low.

Implications and solutions

“Power-holders perceiving responsibility tend to make fairer, more informed decisions which can motivate those low in power and boost collective success”

There are some obvious limitations with this research such as small numbers of participants and the self-report aspect of the survey and experiment. However, there are still several useful lessons for organisations.

  1. New leaders in to an organisation should have a 100-days plan part of which includes how they can identify with their new organisation and the people who work within it.
  2. Team managers can put in place a programme of team development which has a balance of business focused activities (such as reviewing quarterly performance), along with activities which deepen social connections and hence, social identity.
  3. As the researchers state, “Power-holders are less affected by others’ suffering”. Therefore, HR, OD and occupational psychology practitioners in organisations with high sickness levels caused by stress could use this research as a way to pinpoint instances where managers may be too distanced from their teams and hence, not feel responsibility for their welfare.

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