MBA@UNC Global Immersion: Chapel Hill Day Two

Moving on Up: Power and Influence in Organizations with Professor Alison Fragale

An award-winning professor, Dr. Alison Fragale studies the determinants and consequences of power, status and influence in organizations, conflict resolution and negotiation, and verbal and nonverbal communication. She has taught or consulted on leadership and negotiation for executives in numerous organizations, including ExxonMobil, Bayer CropScience, Eastman, the National Multi-Housing Council, AvalonBay, Post Properties, the U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Navy.


Power and Hierarchy

Professor Fragale kicked off this session by defining power as control over resources that others value. It is the ability to reward by granting resources and punish by withholding resources. These resources could be tangible, such as money or physical harm, or intangible, like friendship or teasing.

She continued on to describe hierarchy as the unequal distribution of power in a group. It is ubiquitous in groups and organizations and desired, no matter what people say. There are three reasons why hierarchy is desired:

  • It is easy to understand. Hierarchical relationships are easier to see, understand, learn, and remember than egalitarian relationships. A good example of this was a study on West Point yearbook photos that were paired or contrasted on facial dominance. Facial dominance of cadets predicted their rank at the academy and later in their careers. They were given a reaction time task: press H if you see a picture of two people and press A if you see a picture of a person and animal. A quicker reaction time was evidence that cadets could categorize things more quickly.
  • Facilitates task accomplishment: Hierarchical groups perform better on independent tasks than egalitarian groups. Testosterone predicts dominance, behavior, power attainment, and financial success.
  • Improves relationships: Complementarity leads to greater liking and comfort than mutual dominance or submission (mimicry). We prefer being in hierarchical relationships even if we are in the subordinate position (we all know our place).


How Does Power Feel After All?

It depends on how powerful you think you are. According to Professor Fragale, your first day on the job is generally your lowest power point. You feel as if all eyes are on you, you are anxious to please, you are anxious to stay out of trouble, and you think before you act.

As you get more familiar with your organization, how powerful you feel grows. High power people experience an absence of the feelings felt by low power people. High power does not really “feel” like anything. Therefore, it is hard to know when we are under the influence.

Professor Fragale went on to explain that power reveals the self. Low power people express the expected reaction. For example, they laugh when something actually is not funny. High power people, on the other hand, will not laugh if something is not funny.

There is an increased relationship between traits/feelings and behavior:

  • Communal individuals become more generous with power.
  • Men with tendency to sexually harass are more likely to see a female colleague in sexual terms when they have power.
  • Powerful people are more likely to eat when hungry, or when food is good.


Power Changes the Self

Power also changes the self. Much research has manipulated power by assigning people to high power roles (manager-subordinate, episodic recall). Professor Fragale noted that, among other things, the powerful are more likely to:

  • Use decision heuristics
  • Be egocentric and less empathetic
  • Stereotype
  • Derogate subordinates
  • Experience moral hypocrisy

In addition, they are more likely to bet (and lose) money on difficult general knowledge questions. And, because of overconfidence, the powerful are less willing to take (good) advice or feedback.


Egocentrism and Empathy

Moving on to egocentrism and empathy, Professor Fragale touched on how the powerful are less likely to take the perspective of others (experience empathy). They are also less accurate in judging other people’s emotions.

As evaluator power increases, performance ratings of others become increasingly negative, and self-evaluations become increasingly positive. This is referred to as subordinate derogation. The best example of this is the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Feelings of low status or low competence increase subordinate derogation among power holders – they feel threatened and insecure. They are more likely to assign demeaning behaviors to subordinates and they are more likely to aggress.

Professor Fragale pointed to a couple of other fun facts about how power can change people. According to her, power changes the way you speak. High power people have a higher pitch, are more monotone, but have greater variability in volume. High power also leads you to overestimate your height. High power people are known for providing smaller estimates of a pole’s height relative to self, higher estimates of one’s own height, and tend to choose a taller avatar in a second-life game.


Punishment for the powerful

The powerful are less likely to be punished for low severity crimes (taking a little money) and more likely to be punished more severely for high severity crimes (taking a lot of money). We assume high power people “know better” so their transgressions are intentional.

According to Professor Fragale, you should be aware that there is a “slippery slope” effect. People are more likely to justify small ethical indiscretions than major ones. Over time, as they justify more and more, they can be led to justify even big indiscretions. And when faced with abrupt and large dilemmas (rather than those that gradually increase), people are less likely to be unethical.


How do We Go from Here?

How do we maximize the benefits of hierarchy, while minimizing undesirable behavior from the powerful? There is no cookie cutter solution, Professor Fragale said. There were two steps she offered:

  • Step 1: Awareness of the psychology – we are hardwired to be more disinhibited, impulsive, and egocentric as we gain power.
  • Step 2: Culture, norms, procedures to shape the behavior we want – people can suppress their natural tendencies.


New Leader Speech: Setting the Tone with Professors Patty Harms and Courtney Wright

Dr. Patty Harms teaches written and oral business communication. Her current research interests include visual rhetoric and slide design, performance feedback, online learning, and revision in business writing.

Professor Courtney Wright is director of the Business Communication Center at UNC Kenan-Flagler, which helps students refine their communication skills. She works with graduate consultants to offer free, one-on-one and group consultations and workshops that address both written and spoken communication.


New Leader Speech: Typical Moves and Content

A “New Leader Speech” can help set the tone in a team or organization, said Professor Harms and Professor Wright. They outlined the moves in New Leader Speech:

  • Establish Credibility
  • Motivate the audience
  • Clearly assess the situation
  • Recognize the accomplishments
    • Research says about 80 percent of feedback you give any individual should be positive feedback.
  • Set clear goals
  • Lay out a new plan
  • Connect with new people

Both professors noted that these moves are not necessarily concrete categories, nor must they occur sequentially.


How to Have Great Executive Presence

While this may sound like something you already know, having a great executive presence is easier said than done. To portray great executive presence you must:

  • Dress appropriately for the situation.
  • Speak with energy and passion.
  • Stand with great posture.
  • Manage your space.
  • Control your body movements.
  • Use hand gestures to enhance your message – not distract your audience.
  • Make meaningful eye contact.

You must also consider your posture and stance. Are you standing confidently? Professor Harms noted the do’s and don’ts.

  • Do not…
    • Put your hands in your pockets.
    • Put your hands behind your back.
    • Cross/grasp your hands in front of you.
    • Slouch or cross your arms.
    • Put your hands on your hips.
    • Cross your legs or lean on one hip.
  • Do…
    • Find a comfortable “home base” position that is relatively still.
    • Keep hands relaxed.
    • Maintain an open stance.
    • Stand up straight.
    • Open yourself to the audience.
    • Move with a purpose to help you connect with your audience.
    • Use your space.