Power, defensive denigration, and the assuaging effect of gratitude expression

Defamation

 

The ultimate problem of power abuse rests squarely on the shoulders of the power holders, themselves, as well as the decision-makers that allow them to maintain their positions of authority

When power holders mistreat subordinates, they hinder the subordinates’ performance, diminish morale, and introduce relationship harming stress

Guided reading and extracts from: Power, defensive denigration, and the assuaging effect of gratitude expression, Yeri Cho, Nathanael J. Fast, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012, http://bit.ly/1dPzCEa

Summary

This article examines the interactive effects of power, competency threats, and gratitude expression on the tendency to denigrate others. The results of two experiments indicate that:

(1) power holders whose competence has been threatened are more likely than others to denigrate interaction partners, and

(2) receiving gratitude expression has self-affirming effects for insecure power holders.

Experiment 1 demonstrated that high-power, but not low-power, individuals who received threatening feedback about their competence denigrated the competence of their partners. Importantly, this tendency was ameliorated when subordinates expressed gratitude for previous help provided from the power holder.

Experiment 2 demonstrated that the ameliorating effect of gratitude expression on threatened power holders’ tendency to denigrate subordinates is mediated by increased perceptions of social worth.

Implications for research on power, gratitude expression, and the self are discussed.

——————————————

When power holders mistreat subordinates, they hinder the subordinates’ performance, diminish morale, and introduce relationship harming stress (e.g., Aquino & Thau, 2009; Tepper, 2000, 2007).

One subtle, but insidious, form of mistreatment involves the ongoing denigration of others’ sense of worth and competence (Aquino & Thau, 2009; Georgesen & Harris, 1998).

Although researchers have sought to identify the key determinants of such aggressive tendencies among the powerful (e.g., Bugental & Lewis, 1999; Fast & Chen, 2009; Georgesen & Harris, 2006), less is known about what subordinates may do to reduce these tendencies. Indeed, as noted by Aquino and Thau (2009), given what we currently know, the best advice we can offer is to simply try to avoid abusive power holders in the first place.

In the present article, we draw from recent findings in the power and gratitude expression literatures to illuminate the dynamic relationship between the powerless and the powerful. In particular, we examine whether gratitude expression may ameliorate the aggressive tendencies of insecure power holders by affirming their sense of social worth (Grant & Gino, 2010).

Power, insecurity, and denigration

Power has been shown to produce aggressive tendencies, including denigration (Georgesen & Harris, 1998, 2006), dominance (Kipnis, 1972; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), and negative stereotyping (Guinote, Willis, & Martellotta, 2010; Richeson & Ambady, 2003).

More recently, researchers have explored moderators of the relationship between power and aggressive tendencies. For example, Fast and Chen (2009) demonstrated that power holders who feel incompetent are more likely than others to display direct forms of aggression, a response driven largely by insecurity. Building on these findings, we hypothesize that threats to personal competence (e.g., Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2008) lead the powerful to harm others indirectly as well, in the form of denigration.

We base this on the notion that denigrating others is a common form of ego defensiveness (e.g., Baumeister, Dale, & Sommer, 1998) and that lacking competence is especially threatening to the powerful (Fast & Gruenfeld, 2012).

Avoiding denigration with gratitude expression

These points uncover a clue as to how subordinates might assuage harsh treatment from insecure power holders. Ironically, gratitude expression may provide an answer, as receiving gratitude produces feelings of social worth (Grant & Gino, 2010).

Accordingly, we hypothesize that gratitude expression will serve to mitigate the aggressive tendencies of incompetent power holders and, moreover, will do so by increasing feelings of social worth. Of course, a favorable response to gratitude expression – especially among insecure power holders – is not a given. Experiencing positive feelings toward others, such as gratitude, is often contingent on whether one feels competent enough to, at least in part, have brought about the desired outcome (Chow & Lowery, 2010).

Additionally, power holders are often cynical of others’ motives (Inesi et al., 2011) and, as a result, may discount gratitude expressions as attempts to garner favor. However, we maintain that gratitude expression will serve as a welcome affirmation of social worth (Grant & Gino, 2010) for the threatened power holder by indicating a positive evaluation of help received (see Flynn, 2006).

Conclusion

This research highlights a short-term strategy that subordinates may use to influence insecure power holders.

We hope this research spurs additional work on the topic.

However, we hasten to add that the ultimate problem of power abuse rests squarely on the shoulders of the power holders, themselves, as well as the decision-makers that allow them to maintain their positions of authority.

Thus, it is our hope that research aimed at addressing the problem of power abuse at its roots will continue to flourish as well.

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