Bosses Micromanage When They Feel Powerless

By
Photo: Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicSt/Getty Images

The next time your boss gets too deep into your business, consider this: They may feel powerless, as a new study in Personality and Individual Differences indicates, prompting them to exert control over what you’d rather just take care of yourself.

Led by Michael P. Haselhuhn at the University of California, Riverside, the research team ran two experiments. In the first, done with 238 subjects at a large European business school, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements like “In my relationships with others, I can get them to listen to what I say,” which indicates how powerful people feel personally. Then, they were given a thought experiment to measure their comfort with delegating, in the form of agreeing or disagreeing with a management philosophy that said that employees are not to be trusted. As predicted, the less powerful people felt, the more they mistrusted workers.

In a second experiment, 100 people recruited online were asked to recall an experience where they felt either powerful or powerless (a technique borrowed from earlier power research). They were then asked if they agreed or disagreed with the same authoritarian leadership style described in the first experiment. This time there wasn’t a gendered difference in responses, and they found that — as expected — when people were manipulated into feeling powerless, the grasped harder at maintaining their authority.

If this sounds like something that doesn’t apply just to professional life, you’re right. It’s a lot like what psychotherapist Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving With the Self-Absorbed, told us about what happens in the lives of people that become narcissists: They are made to feel powerless by their early childhood experiences, so they spend much of their lives dominating others. That’s the irony of power: If you’re secure in yours, you don’t feel compelled to control everybody around you.

Bosses Micromanage When They Feel Powerless