Moral Identity Determines Direction of Power Trip

Power can cause even the most level-headed individuals to act in self-serving ways. Many individuals believe that power is a corruptive force and that most people who gain vast amounts of power inevitably use it for ill. However, a recent study, led by Katherine A. DeCelles of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in Canada, suggests that power may have positive and negative effects. In work environments, disparities in power can cause a division in collaboration. People in positions of power can overlook the needs and interests of their subordinates in favor of their own interests. But power can also create a feeling of empathy and may even cause an individual to place the needs of others before their own. Research on power has demonstrated a link between one’s self-interest and their moral identity. The more aware one is of their values and self-concept, the stronger their sense of moral identity, and in most cases, the more empathetic and attentive to other’s needs.

DeCelles and her colleagues conducted a series of surveys on employed adults to determine how moral identity influenced the effect of power. She found that the participants who had the weakest moral identities were the most self-serving when in a position of power. Conversely, DeCelles and her team also discovered that the individuals with the highest moral identity were the most likely to put other’s interests ahead of their own when given an opportunity to wield power. Additionally, this dynamic was seen in cases of trait power as well as manipulated power, emphasizing the influence of moral identity on self-serving behaviors. “In sum, our research demonstrates how power and moral identity interact to explain individuals’ moral awareness and self-interested behavior,” said DeCelles. “Our hope is that this study motivates other scholars to continue examining the intersection of power and morality at work.”

DeCelles, K. A., DeRue, D. S., Margolis, J. D., Ceranic, T. L. (2012, January 16). Does Power Corrupt or Enable? When and Why Power Facilitates Self-Interested Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026811

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  • Gordon

    January 25th, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    So if this is the case thn most paople in positions of power must have horrtible values, because most of the that I have known or have had the misfortune to work for are pretty nasty! I know how easy it can be to let power go to your head and to have all of this confidence because you are in charge. But I do think that the best leaders are those who can take a step back and really see how their decisions and actions are affecting the others that they work with. When they lose sight of that then they lose sight of what it means to be in charge.

  • Belle

    January 25th, 2012 at 9:35 PM

    Being in a position of power is not an excuse to behave like an immature little tyrant. Unfortunately too many are given the power without having the coping skills or experience to back it up. I see it all the time in my line of work. They bring in new graduates and give them positions they don’t have the maturity to handle because the HR dept’s dazzled by their degree. It’s nuts.


    January 26th, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    Not only does your moral identity determine whether you use your power positively or negatively but I think it can also determine whether you are vulnerable to changing your stance.Like moral identity also has levels,I mean.

  • Cassie V.

    January 31st, 2012 at 9:37 PM

    I’ve seen workers go from being normal and then get a promotion where they morph into these unrecognizable nasty little bully boys/girls. Why they don’t know that you get loyalty from staff when you treat them well is beyond me. That’s Management 101 stuff.

  • Ben Burrows

    January 31st, 2012 at 10:25 PM

    @Cassie V. –oh they know it alright. They just want to be infantile and throw their weight around because they can. Power hungry ones like that don’t tend to last in the role,fortunately. Their lack of management skill soon shows up in the performance indicators.

  • P. F. Givens

    February 11th, 2012 at 2:28 AM

    I beg to differ! I’m a department manager in retail and I use my power for good. I’ve changed shift patterns to suit good staff that find themselves suddenly unable to accommodate their normal shift, got them training they wanted but that had fell on deaf ears before I took over, celebrated our successes by recognizing and rewarding them all, big and small, and I have an open door policy.

    I worked for power crazed bosses myself when I was younger and swore I’d never manage that way if I got the chance. I now have a staff I’m very proud of because I treated them like equal human beings, not minions.

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