University of Southern California

Workplace Power Dynamics Offer Insights into Leadership
Marshall Researcher Focuses on Business Behavior and its Effects on Our Culture
December 7, 2009 • by News at Marshall

Nathanael Fast, an assistant professor of management and organization at USC Marshall, is examining the psychology of power and influence. He is focusing on two main areas: How are people transformed by power and how do these transformations help and hinder leadership effectiveness? What mechanisms cause certain people, ideas and practices to have a disproportionate amount of influence on the cultures of groups and organizations?

A prolific researcher, Fast has recently published a series of studies looking at the dynamics of power and the implications of leadership and blame in organizations. He says he initially became interested in these issues when he was in graduate school at Stanford University amid the business scandals at Enron, Adelphia and WorldCom, among others. Fast saw top executives wielding power with clearly negative consequences and a culture of blame that developed as troubled organizations dealt with the fallout of poor decisions.

In a study called "Blame Contagion: The Automatic Transmission of Self-Serving Attributions," published in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Fast looked at whether shifting blame to others is socially contagious.

"When we see others protecting their egos, we become defensive too," says Fast, the study's lead author. "We then try to protect our own self-image by blaming others for our mistakes, which may feel good in the moment but can lead to bad results.”

Fast says that when public blaming becomes common practice – especially by leaders—its effects on an organization can be insidious and withering: Individuals who are fearful of being blamed for something become less willing to take risks, are less innovative or creative, and are less likely to learn from their mistakes.

This toxic culture of fear can also come from the actions of business leaders who cannot handle the implications of power, Fast says. He found a direct link between self-perceived incompetence and aggression among supervisors and upper management in a study published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"When people in high-power positions feel incompetent they tend to respond with aggression toward others because it makes them feel superior," says Fast.

Past research has shown that bosses will act aggressively when they have an especially high need for power. This study moves beyond these findings, showing it is often a threatened ego – caused by the power holder's own sense of incompetence – that triggers hostility.

While Fast clearly saw the negative implications of power, he also observed that there are leaders who can handle power. "A lot of people think power corrupts everyone—it doesn’t corrupt everyone. People who feel secure about their leadership abilities can use power well," he says.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.