University of Toronto researcher examines effects of power

November 11, 2002

When faced with decisions, authority figures openly express their opinions while subordinates tend to withhold theirs, says a U of T business professor.

"If subordinates inhibit their true opinions, they're not able to have influence on decisions," says Jennifer Berdahl, co-author of the study The Experience of Power: Examining the Effects of Power on Approach and Inhibition Tendencies. "This could affect their job performance and weaken decisions that an organization makes."

Berdahl and Cameron Anderson of Northwestern University randomly divided a group of 300 students into "supervisors" and "subordinates." Individually and as a supervisor-subordinate team, the students had to make decisions about awarding performance bonuses to fictitious company employees.

The researchers discovered that supervisors expressed confidence and were comfortable openly voicing their opinions while subordinates hesitated to disagree with their bosses. This led the supervisors to have significantly more influence than subordinates over team decisions. In addition, subordinates underestimated how well their supervisors liked them and overestimated how angry their supervisors were during their interaction.

"Our research indicates that the flatter the company hierarchies are, the better," says Berdahl. "The greater the power discrepancies between individuals, especially when joint decisions must be made, the greater the possibility that poorer decisions will be made and social misperceptions will occur." The study, funded by the University of California at Berkeley, will appear in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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CONTACT: Professor Jennifer Berdahl, Rotman School of Management, 416-978-4273, jberdahl@rotman.utoronto.ca or Sue Toye, U of T public affairs, 416-978-4289, sue.toye@utoronto.ca

University of Toronto

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