BY HATTIE JACOBS
With great power comes great misconception.
POWER SHOWS I TSELF 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This suggests that stereotypes of powerholders as white men may be out of date.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.”
Learn more about the Rady School of
Management study at tritonmag.com/
"We found having power over others
actually made individuals have
more concern for those people and
want to interact with them more."