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Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others

We’re all familiar with the classic adage “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Not only does this statement reflect popular sentiment but it is also supported by scientific research.

How does corruption affect a person’s power position?

Idealists among us would hope that people with power who break the rules quickly and loudly fall off the corporate ladder. But, as the research study below asks, is this the case? Or does the very act of breaking the rules fuel perceptions of power and make the person more powerful?

The idea that power leads to corruption is well documented but until now the reverse possibility (corruption leading to power) had never been explored.

A while ago, I highlighted a post on signalling (“Too Cool For School? Signalling and Counter-signalling“) that described how high-types (that is, high in productivity, wealth, fecundity, or some other valued attribute) differentiate themselves from the average through signalling. It appears we can now add rulebreaking as a signal of power and status to others.

Compared to less powerful individuals, those with power are likely to take more cookies from a common plate, and eat with their mouths open; interrupt conversation partners and invade their personal space; fail to take another person’s perspective; ignore other people’s suffering; stereotype, and patronize others; cheat; take credit for the contributions of others; and treat other people as a means to their own ends. They also exhibit more aggression and this is (surprisingly) acceptable to others. We all know of an organization with a zero-tolerance harassment policy run by someone who constantly harasses others.

Another interesting point from the study, “although the powerful impose strict moral standards on others, they practice less strict more behavior themselves.”

If you’ve read this far, you won’t be surprised to find out that performance is not the way to power.

The authors of the study point out, “this vicious cycle of norm violations and power affordance may play a role in the emergence and perpetuation of a multitude of undesirable social anti-organizational behaviors such as fraud, sexual harassment, andviolence. Indeed, among groups of hooligans and street gangs, norm violations (e.g., violence, vandalism) are thought of as status enhancing.” 

I can assure you that hooligans are not the only ones who consider norm violation to be status enhancing. In this, corporate executives have more in common with hooligans then they would like to acknowledge.

The authors of the study do not claim that violating norms always leads to perceptions of power. Their goal was only to demonstrate that it could. They conclude “conclude that norm violations can increase one’s power in the eyes of others. As individuals gain power, they experience increased freedom to violate prevailing norms. Paradoxically, these norm violations may notundermine the actor’s power but instead augment it, thus fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of power and immorality.”

Aside from acting like a dick, if you’re looking to gain more power at work you should read Power: Why some people have it and others don’t. If you don’t care about power but you’d like to have more influence, try Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion or Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. For the serious intellectual, the best book ever written on the subject was The Prince.

If you’re too lazy for any of that, read my notes on how to gain power and listen to the interview.

The Abstract:

Powerful people often act at will, even if the resulting behavior is inappropriate—hence the famous proverb ‘‘power corrupts.’’ Here, we introduce the reverse phenomenon—violating norms signals power. Violating a norm implies that one has the power to act according to one’s own volition in spite of situational constraints, which fuels perceptions of power. Four studies support this hypothesis. Individuals who took coffee from another person’s can (Study 1), violated rules of bookkeeping (Study 2), dropped cigarette ashes on the floor (Study 3), or put their feet on the table (Study 4) were perceived as more powerful than individuals who did not show such behaviors. The effect was mediated by inferences of volitional capacity, and it replicated across different methods (scenario, film clip, face-to-face interaction), different norm violations, and different indices of power (explicit measures, expected emotions, and approach/inhibition tendencies). Implications for power, morality, and social hierarchy are discussed.