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Truth to Power

Leigh Plunkett Tost studies the dynamics of power

August 13, 2018
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Leigh Plunkett Tost was an undergraduate in psychology at Harvard when she started studying power. “There was something about the power structure there,” she said. “I started to think about feelings of power, and power as a feature of social life.”

Turns out, power is a topic of perennial urgency, particularly of late.

Tost went on to earn a Ph.D. in business, and her research interests began to include topics such as organizational legitimacy and employee citizenship behavior. But the ongoing theme of her work still lands the USC Marshall assistant professor of management and organization firmly at the epi-center of academic thought around organizational power dynamics.

“Why are the effects of women’s traits on power only obvious at the upper echelons? In fact, why are there so few women at the top? Does that reflect supply or demand? To what extent can we gender-neutralize how we think about power within cultures?” -- Leigh Plunkett Tost

“I believe we can change assumptions through understanding,” Tost said. She furthers that belief in papers such as “Power, Competitiveness, and Advice Taking: Why the Powerful Don’t Listen,” “Noblesse Oblige Emerges (With Time): Power Enhances Intergenerational Beneficence,” and her most recent publication, “Advice Giving: A Subtle Pathway to Power,” published in January in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In this study, Tost and her co-authors show that giving advice can prompt feelings of power and that people who are motivated to achieve power are more likely than others to offer advice.

“We tend to associate power with corruption by default,” she said. “But power and corruption are only part of the story. I’ve been trying to tell the bigger story.“ Toward that end, Tost’s upcoming work looks at how, when, and why power induces solidarity with others and the relationship between power and ethics.

Still, she returns to old questions. “I’ve had a long-term interest in the relationship between gender and leadership,” Tost said. “Why are women, relative to men, often less comfortable thinking of themselves as powerful? In fact, why are there so few women at the top? Does that reflect supply or demand? To what extent can we gender-neutralize how we think about power within cultures?”

Tost has pursued these and other issues through ongoing projects looking at gender and career ambitions and by advising doctoral students who are examining issues related to organizations’ diversity management strategies.

“Broadly speaking,” she said, “I wonder how we think about differences across people and groups, particularly differences of power, status and influence. What’s the role of ideology in how people understand these differences? How do we find harmony?”