Research Reveals Lack of Power Corrupts, Too

Those who lack power and status in an organization tend to promote themselves through strategic deceit

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Evidence of this notion, credited to 19th century writer Lord Acton, is littered across the chapters of human history, from ancient civilizations to modern politics, business and entertainment industries.

While this evidence seems irrefutable, it begs the question: if power corrupts, does the lack of power cleanse?

Not exactly, according to new research by Huisi (Jessica) Li of the University of Washington Foster School of Business. The study by Li and co-authors Ya-Ru Chen and Angus Hildreth of Cornell University demonstrates that one particular type of unethical behavior—self-promotional lying—is actually more common among lower-power executives, managers and employees.

This includes behaviors such as claiming undue credit, exaggerating work achievement and giving misleading information with the intent of enhancing personal status within the organization.

“Fake it ’til you make it”

It all comes down to a threat to one’s esteem,” explains Li, an assistant professor of management and organization at the Foster School. “Powerful individuals in companies control the money, resources and the people under them, whereas their low-power counterparts control much less or absolutely none of these things. Lack of control over valued resources leads to feelings of lower esteem. Thus, people with lower power experience lower self-esteem and assume a lack of esteem in others’ eyes.”

Huisi (Jessica) Li

This feeling of low esteem in one’s company drives unethical behaviors in those who do not have enough power. When low-power employees feel inadequate in their jobs and inferior compared to their co-workers, they are likely to tell self-promotional lies. In other words, if a worker feels unimportant and unvalued, they are more likely to exaggerate and lie about their accomplishments and skills.

The popular saying, “fake it ’til you make it,” points to both positive and negative behaviors, Li explains.

On one hand, there are the “acting as if” psychological techniques put forth by Alfred Adler that focus on positivity and practicing desirable behaviors.

On the other hand, there are unethical behaviors like lying that “fake it” in a potentially damaging way. The latter, negative actions increase in those with lower self-esteem out of attempts to make themselves feel better and improve how other people perceive them.

An effective intervention: self-affirmation

Given this reality, Li and her colleagues decided to find out if building self-esteem in lower-power people would ameliorate unethical behavior.

They proposed an intervention that might reduce the tendency of people to tell self-promotional lies when they feel less powerful. They tested a method called “self-affirmation.”

Specifically, study participants were asked to think and write about the values that they really care about. These core values encompass professional and non-professional domains such as creativity, independence and relationships, among others.

When lower-power people focused on their core values, Li found that they were able to shift their attention from any current esteem threat to the bigger picture of their life.

“Prior research has shown that this approach can help people feel better about themselves and even make them act with more confidence and integrity,” she explains. “In our study, we found that giving those who felt less powerful an opportunity to affirm their core values indeed reduces their tendency to tell self-promotional lies.”

Should organizations care?

When employees stretch the truth to make themselves look great, organizations are harmed, Li says. Self-promotional lies can result in incorrect information, bad decisions and distrust in the company.

The paper shows that it is most often those who lack power—rather than those who have it—that engage in these particular kinds of corrupt behaviors.

And organizations would be wise to be aware of this problem. Li suggests that one way to combat self-promoting deception is to ensure that all employees—and especially those who languish in lower rungs of hierarchy—feel respected and valued. When employees feel good about their place in an organization, they are more likely to be honest. This can lead to a more genuine and productive work environment.

“When employees feel unimportant or undervalued at work, they might exaggerate their achievements to feel better about themselves,” Li says. “We found that one way to address this is by affirming what employees personally and truly value in their life.

“This self-affirmation helps them accept who they really are and reduces their urge to exaggerate. When employees feel respected and valued, they are more likely to tell the truth, share genuine opinions and make ethical decisions.”

The truth of the matter

Li believes that Lord Acton’s famous dictum does not tell the whole story. And her paper presents evidence.

Closer to the truth may be a lesser-known quote from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Myanmar opposition leader: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

“Those who are subject to power—those below the C-suite in any organization—fear lack of importance and esteem, which can drive them to tell self-promotional lies,” Li adds. “That fear drives a need for status that leads to unethical behavior.”

Fostering self-affirmation among those subordinate employees can address the problem.

Powerlessness Also Corrupts: Lower Power Increases Self-Promotional Lying” is forthcoming in Organization Science.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.