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Employee Influence on Powerful Leaders

Oftentimes, those who have access to a great deal of resources tend to have the most power in the workplace. Many believe that in their subordinate roles, they have little ability to influence those in power. When subordinates join together, they are able to challenge authority. However, if one person speaks up, does this make a difference?

This question may come down to fairness. Previous research has found that powerholders want to appear fair, even when acting in their own self-interest. This may mean they are motived to change their behavior simply to increase perceptions of fairness.

New research in the Journal Applied Psychology explored the question if fairness had a role in the aforementioned question. The researchers conducted three studies in which participants played a computer game. In the game, participants were given a pool of resources and instructed to distribute such resources amongst themselves and subordinates. This ultimately put them in a position of power. The more resources they kept for themselves, the more they would be paid upon completion of the study. This would motivate them to act in their own self-interest. The participants were told that their subordinates were real people although this was not the case.

Throughout the game, the computer program offered feedback to the participant about their fairness–basically imitating the voice of a subordinate. Sometimes, participants were told that they were unfair in how they distributed the resources. At other times, they were praised for being fair. The results revealed that when the computer challenged their fairness, the participants acted in a less-interested way and distributed points in a more equitable manner. However, when they were praised for being fair, they kept more resources for themselves and ultimately acted more self-interested.

Under some circumstances, participants were told that the subordinates belonged to the same social group as them (e.g., they were members of the same political party, they attended the same school, etc.) The results revealed that if the participant belonged to the same social group as the subordinate (i.e., the computer), the feedback was more influential.

Oc, B., Bashshur, M. R., & Moore, C. (2019). Head Above the Parapet: How Minority Subordinates Influence Group Outcomes and the Consequences They Face for Doing so. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(7), 929–945.