According to a recent study, it seems that people who occupy positions of power who also occupy low status roles are more likely to abuse their authority. The research suggests one possible explanation for the behaviour of bank clerks and doctor’s receptionists, who may simply be rude, and soldiers who humiliate or even torture their prisoners.
In the study (The Destructive Nature of Power without Status), students were divided into high and low status roles, some of which were granted authority to issue a variety of commands. The findings suggest that the combination of high authority and low status can be particularly toxic, with students who were allocated that particular combination more prone to assigning demeaning tasks to their subordinates.
Having power means possessing the ability to act in a particular way, such as having the organisational authority to direct or exert influence over other people. Status, on the other hand, concerns the level of prestige ascribed to our position and it might be measured in terms of our social standing, professional reputation or some other method of ranking.
So, when you look around the organisation that you are presently operating within, does this finding hold true? Are the bullies those same people who have that particular combination of attributes associated with their roles i.e. high authority and low status? There’s a good chance that this will be true.
Personally, I have always felt that solving many of the problems we face in life first involves properly understanding them and I therefore think this piece of research may be very important to organisations and individuals alike. For organisations that presumably want to improve relationships and motivation within the workplace, I believe it is important to re-examine the organisational hierarchy specifically looking for the misuse of organisational power.
We should have zero tolerance for bullying within the workplace. But we need to understand that by creating roles that are essentially low status, that also have a certain amount of organisational power attached to them, we may be unwittingly encouraging it. It may be possible, the study suggests, to tackle the issue by elevating the status of such roles. The suggestion should be looked at very carefully. Obviously, it is not intended to suggest that we should reward bad behaviour by attempting to increase the status of bullies within the company.
It is clearly not the case that everyone in low status positions of authority will end up bullying their subordinates. There are certainly other factors at work, such as personality, that also act to influence behaviour. So, a workable approach would be to look very carefully at the selection process for roles that are traditionally low status (team leader, supervisor, etc).
Perhaps it is time you looked again at the way you select your junior managers. Essentially, we want to promote people who have the right personal values and strength of character to be able to cope with the increased responsibility. Just think how much more effective your company might become if your selection processes for positions of junior management and supervisory roles were refined to more fully address these factors.