How To Handle Your Insecure Boss

Released: 29-Mar-2012 9:00 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Southern California
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Citations Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Newswise — As parents strive to instill in their kids the importance of saying “thank you,” it turns out expressing gratitude is not just good manners, A new USC Marshall School of Business study shows that gratitude is an essential tool to navigating the workplace, especially when that workplace is overseen by a belligerent and insecure boss.

In an article recently published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Yeri Cho, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at USC Marshall, and Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at Marshall, examine “the interactive effects of power, competency threats and gratitude expression on the tendency to denigrate others.”

Cho —whose research focus is on power, status and negotiations—said she began the study as way to understand “what makes some bosses mistreat their subordinates, and what can the subordinates do about it?”

The launching point was a recent article showing that gratitude expression boosts a sense of social worth. “Maybe if powerful people received gratitude expression from their subordinates and felt socially valued, they would reduce their aggression toward others,” Cho said.

To test this hypothesis, Cho and Fast conducted two experiments. Based on those experiments, they concluded: “Power holders whose competence has been threatened are more likely than others to denigrate … and receiving gratitude expression has self-affirming effects for insecure power holders.”

In the first experiment, Cho and Fast examined whether power paired with threatened competence would lead to denigration of a partner. Additionally, they tested whether gratitude expression by the partner would alleviate this tendency.

To accomplish this, they told research subjects they were being divided into two-member teams and that their other “teammate” was in another room and able to communicate via written notes. They were next asked to write instructions for how to assemble an object clearly enough so someone else could assemble it. Then they were asked to review a draft of the instructions—ostensibly written by their partner, but really written by the experimenter—and provide feedback.

Cho and Fast randomly divided the subjects into “high power” and “low power” positions and told the high power subjects that they were to offer feedback as well as “evaluate” their partner’s work (both of which would affect potential monetary rewards). They told the low power subjects that they were to analyze and provide feedback.

The subjects were next delivered their notes from their supposed partner, which either contained no gratitude expression with the feedback, or the same feedback with the line “Thank you so much! I am really grateful.”

After viewing the partner's message, participants had the opportunity to denigrate their partner's competence by rating the degree to which their partner seemed “competent, intelligent, capable, incompetent unskilled likely to succeed and likely to fail.”

The result? According to the study, “high-power participants whose competence was threatened denigrated their subordinates. Importantly, this pattern disappeared when the subordinate expressed gratitude. Among low-power participants, there were no main effects of competence and gratitude expression, nor was there an interaction between competence and gratitude expression.”

In the second experiment, Cho and Fast sought to assess “whether perceived social worth in the eyes of subordinates accounts for the ameliorating effects of gratitude expression on threatened power holders' tendency to denigrate others.”

They asked their subjects to write a description of a picture so someone else could draw the picture from the description. “Everyone received the same description and then a questionnaire on competence, asking them to provide feedback,” said Cho. Subjects were once again divided into “high” and “low” power roles.

“We told them we would deliver their feedback on their description to their partner, who was supposedly in the other room,” Cho said. “Then we pretended to return with a note from the partner who had supposedly received the feedback. Some of the participants received a note of gratitude that said, ‘Thanks so much for your feedback,’ versus the other set, who received no gratitude.”

The subjects were then asked to think about their partner, how competent and socially desirable they were. According to Cho, the people with power who felt incompetent denigrated their partner if they didn’t receive any gratitude.

Fast, whose previous work has explored how power, feelings of competence and aggression are related, further explained: “When people have power they feel the need to meet demanding role expectations, and when they don’t feel competent they lash out with aggression toward others. To assuage this effect, we found that affirming the ego of the power holder ameliorated the aggression.”

So should employees who want a better relationship with their bosses start demonstrating some appreciation?

“We think that this can be an effective short-term strategy to enhance a subordinate-boss relationship,” said Cho. “As a long-term solution, we are not sure if this is going to be effective. The main long-term solution should come from the powerful themselves, as they are the ones with the power to control the situation.”

This leaves room for future research aimed at addressing the problem of power abuse at its roots, said Cho. “People who hold power are often better at pursuing goals, at achieving a sense of control over their environment than lower power people. I want to learn how people in low power positions might improve pursuing their goals.”

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