Power Play

chess_r2-01With great power comes great misconception.

Power shows itself in many aspects of human interaction: from the boardroom to the living room. Yet while most research into power dynamics comes out of business organizations or artificial laboratory environments, a study from the Rady School of Management reveals surprising insights about power and how it plays out naturally in and out of the workplace.

A recent research project led by Rady Professor of Management Pamela K. Smith repeatedly surveyed 210 U.S. adults at random times throughout a three-day period, asking them how powerless or powerful they felt at the moment and whether they held a position of power over someone, or vice versa.

Smith and her colleagues found that power differences were definitely a common experience. Of the 83 percent of participants who reported taking part in some form of power exchange, people more often experienced someone having power over them rather than having power themselves. In such cases, participants also reported feeling worse—worse mood, more stress and more mental exhaustion.

Yet when participants had power over others, they reported feeling closer to others and more responsible for them.

“People in powerful positions are typically seen as cold, uncaring and distant,” Smith says of the results. “But our findings show this is an oversimplification. We found having power over others actually made individuals have more concern for those people and want to interact with them more.

“We think the difference is that stereotypes of powerholders focus on power in the workplace; however, power exists in many forms, including between parents and children and in romantic relationships. Power is embedded in our personal relationships.”

Feelings of power were also seen to stem more from the unique situations participants were in rather than from stable personal characteristics. For instance, most demographics, such as gender, education level and race/ethnicity, were not consistently related to how power was experienced. This suggests that stereotypes of powerholders as white men may be out of date.

Another important takeaway, Smith believes, is about how we perceive power daily. The research findings imply that individuals are able to find power in many different situations.

“In this study, participants could define power as it related to all aspects of their lives. That allowed us to study a rich variety of powerful and powerless experiences. We found that participants’ feelings of power came from more than just the position they held. In particular, even when participants reported that someone currently had power over them, they sometimes still reported feeling powerful. This is good news, since such powerless moments are more common than moments when we hold powerful positions.”