The Power of Roles

Bob Sutton commenting on a very old study called “The Effects of Changes in Roles on the Attitudes of Role Occupants”:

The study was fascinating in that Lieberman was able to gather data during a “naturally occurring experiment” where people who worked in a manufacturing company switched roles — in some cases moving from a worker to foreman and in other cases, moving from a worker to a union steward. The numbers were not large, only some 58 people changed roles. But the magnitude of the effects were quite large, especially among the new foremen. They changed their attitudes markedly, turning pro-management, pro-company, and anti-union within 6 months of taking their new jobs. For example, 70% of the new foremen reported seeing the company as a better place to work than they did when they were workers, while only 26% had no change in opinion. 74% believed that the union should have less say in setting standards than they did when they were workers. And on and on. The new union stewards also expressed stronger pro-worker and pro-union sentiments than when they had been workers, but the effects were not as pronounced.

Then, there was an interesting twist that Seymour Lieberman took advantage of; as a result of a downturn, about a third (8) of the 23 workers who had been promoted to foremen were then demoted to workers, while the other two-thirds remained foremen. The numbers here are very small, and while modern studies have replicated related findings with more rigor, it is still interesting to see that the 8 workers who returned to being workers soon developed pretty much the same anti-management and pro-union sentiments as their fellow workers; but those who remained as foreman retained their pro-company and pro-management attitudes.