By Lacie Blankenship
“Ever since they got promoted, I’ve had to do all the grunt work.” A complaint that workplace superiors pass along unpleasant tasks to their subordinates is akin to the popular notion that newfound power disengages diligent workers.
New Vanderbilt research challenges the myth that employees dodge responsibilities once they gain workplace power and details hierarchical superiors’ engagement with unpleasant tasks.
When the Boss Steps Up: Workplace Power, Task Responsibility, and Engagement with Unpleasant Tasks by Gabrielle Lopiano, Assistant Professor of Management, finds that having structural power within an organization can inspire employees to feel more responsible for and engage more with unpleasant work tasks.
The research, co-authored by Melissa Williams of Emory University and Daniel Heller of Tel Aviv University, explores job responsibilities, power, and how the hierarchies at work can influence what employees feel compelled to do within their roles.
“This study was motivated by curiosity in how and why powerful people engage (diligence, conscientiousness, and persistence) with their work,” says Lopiano. “Workplace power is a lot different than the psychological feeling of power. You are sort of constrained, rather than freed, by your higher position in the organization, and we are interested in that aspect of power.”
The study’s findings have implications for understanding power dynamics and are applicable to people in all stages of the workforce, but particularly to those with preconceived notions that power corrupts or that promotions change attitudes for the worse.
“This study is important because there’s this viewpoint that when someone gets promoted, they change, and well, they may change, but it’s not always for the worse,” says Lopiano.
First, survey participants reported on their work roles and then were asked to describe the unpleasant tasks they had to do recently, how responsible they felt for them, and how much they engaged while completing them. Next, in the experimental studies, participants were randomly assigned a fictitious role of either the team supervisor or a subordinate and then were asked to complete the unpleasant and tedious task of copying letter strings (a sequence of random letters in different fonts). Participants were told that they were working on teams to mimic the power dynamics of today’s workplaces, and each individual could choose how long they would continue copying the letter strings.
“We saw that giving people a powerful rule made them feel more responsible for the task,” says Lopiano. “It actually led to them persisting longer, translating a greater number of letter strings.”
As organizations continue to experiment with different structures and varying positions of power, this study can serve as a reference point for managers to understand the impact hierarchies have.
“We see that organizations continue adopting hierarchies so there’s obviously an evolutionary benefit to the structure,” says Lopiano. “This study sheds light on why those hierarchies might be beneficial.”