The struggle between power and connection

January 8, 2017

So much is expected of members of minority or underrepresented groups who reach decision-making positions.

When women or members of racial/ethnic minority groups get hired into top positions, they are often expected to promote diversity and to mentor and help advance minority groups. For instance, the (usually token) female executive is expected to pave the way for junior female colleagues. But we do not expect men to help other men in the workplace—instead, we are happy to see them compete with one another.


The high expectations for group solidarity among members of underrepresented groups are evident in how harshly we judge individuals who fall short.


Some still recall how Marissa Mayer made history when she became the youngest female CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company—while five months pregnant. Working moms very vocally hoped that she would pave the way for a more family-friendly corporate culture.

After giving birth, she took two weeks of maternity leave, which prompted criticism from many who worried that her decision would reflect badly on working moms who took more time away from the office. Then, she was strongly criticized for eliminating the company’s telecommuting policy. Many viewed this move as a slap in the face of working mothers, who benefit disproportionately from these types of flex work policies. 


When women in high-level roles in masculine organizations fail to help advance or mentor other women, we call them Queen bees, ice-queens, etc. (You can learn more about the research on this topic here, here, and here). No equivalent term exists to describe a man in a powerful role who is not particularly bent on helping junior men in their ascent up the ladder. No one expects men to invest time and efforts to help one another—instead, we are happy to see them compete with one another, and indeed we demand that they do.


Perhaps nobody can convey this expectation that women support the advancement of fellow women better than former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who said (on multiple occasions) “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. Here's one of them, in 2016, in the democratic primary campaign with Hilary Clinton: 


It appears as though leaders from underrepresented backgrounds (like Marissa Mayer) are often expected to mentor and support others from their underrepresented group to help them advance in their organizations, and to promote changes that will foster diversity and inclusion. But there are numerous reasons why helping others in this way may be a tall order for members of disadvantaged groups who make it into decision-making roles.


To begin with, they might find that their efforts to meet these solidarity expectations do not go unpunished. Research suggests that it’s risky for low-status group members to help others like them. Women and racial/ethnic minorities who promote diversity in their organizations tend to be penalized with worse performance evaluations than men and White folks who push for diversity. Other work shows that, especially among the politically conservative, women are more likely to be accepted into top positions when they are themselves conservative because they are perceived as less likely to “rock the boat” and use their power to lift up other women. Isn’t that just precious?


In this way, walking the walk and actually pushing for diversity might be harder than anticipated for leaders who belong to underrepresented groups, as their efforts tend to be met with resistance.


Another reason why leaders from underrepresented groups might be relatively unwilling to help and promote fellow group members is that the psychological experience of power has the curious effect of reducing interest in promoting and cooperating with our groups.


Power is an individuating force. It makes you focus on your own goals. Many of us are often preoccupied with figuring out what others around want from us, or what they need or desire—even what they’re thinking or feeling from moment to moment. But when we feel powerful, we appear to care less about others and more about ourselves—we prioritize our own thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires.


This tendency to think less about others when we feel powerful was demonstrated in an interesting series of studies by Adam Galinsky and colleagues, in which researchers primed participants to feel either powerful or powerless. (By the way, social psychologists have developed all sorts of clever ways to make people feel more or less powerful, and you can see some examples here, here, and here).


These experiments revealed that when people were primed to feel powerful, they were less likely to take on the perspective of others. When asked to draw a letter E in their forehead (isn’t social psychology fun?), participants made to feel powerful were more likely to draw the letter in a self-oriented direction that others would not be able to read. In contrast, participants made to feel powerless were more likely to spontaneously draw the letter in an other-oriented direction.


In other studies, compared to people who felt powerless, people who felt powerful were less able to fully grasp that others might not possess the same knowledge. People who felt powerful were also less accurate than those who did not when trying to identify what others were feeling.


What these studies reveal is that power can greatly reduce our tendency to take on the perspective of others, our interest in seeing the world the way others see it, our willingness to put ourselves in their shoes. Additional research suggests that feeling powerful simply makes us less interested in others, period.


Popular images abound in our culture that the powerful struggle with loneliness (just google “lonely at the top” and see). But, in fact, it appears as though this is more myth than axiom. Research suggests that those who feel powerful actually feel less lonely, not more. Humans are gregarious creatures—and it is a fundamental part of our nature to be drawn to others and to want to feel like we belong… But feeling powerful seems to reduce these tendencies considerably.


Instead, feeling powerful can lead to a sense of independence and agency, a feeling that we can take on the world with little help from others, and that we simply do not need them too much to accomplish our goals, meet our needs, or fulfill our desires. 


If power is such an individuating force, then it should not surprise us if it influences our connections to social groups. It appears like the psychological experience of power could make us less interested in promoting and cooperating with our groups. To test this idea, my colleague Jaime Napier and I conducted a series of experiments to see if feeling powerful could reduce group identification in women.


We found that women who were made to feel powerful subsequently reported feeling less identified with their gender group, relative to women who recalled being in a low power position and to women in an experimental control condition. They felt like they cared less about their bonds with other women, and that being a woman was not very important, not an essential part of who they were as people.


(In contrast, power did not have any impact on men’s social identity, perhaps because members of high status groups like men already tend to identify less strongly with the groups to which they belong. See, it seems like when women feel powerful they become more like men, in that the bonds that ties them with others become less central to them when they feel powerful.) 


Take this real world example. Here’s Carly Fiorina. You may know her from her recent attempt to become the President of the US in 2015-2016.


When Fiorina was hired as the first female CEO of Hewlett-Packard back in 1999, she quickly became the focus of intense media coverage because of her gender. And she famously said at the news conference announcing her appointment: “My gender is interesting―but it is not the story here―I hope we‘re at a point that everyone has figured out that there is no glass ceiling.” Years later, she explained,



Fiorina’s words illustrate our research findings very well, that power can make leaders from underrepresented groups such as women feel less identified with their groups.


Identifying with one’s group has been found to be an important precondition for the emergence of group solidarity. So, if power makes leaders from underrepresented groups feel less identified with those groups, then it follows that it may reduce solidarity and make leaders relatively unwilling to help and promote fellow group members.


Obviously, this phenomenon could have problematic consequences for group advancement. Women today comprise about 47% of the labor force in the US, but only about 15% of CEO positions. Similarly, racial/ethnic minorities occupied only between 3.6 and 5.5% of all chief executive offices in 2015. Unfortunately, what the research suggests is that the few women and minorities who make it to the top—the select few who may be uniquely positioned to produce structural changes—may be disinclined to actually push for those changes.


What could be done to keep these emergent leaders connected to their underrepresented groups?


The challenge for those of us who care about equality and social justice is to continue to shed light on the difficulties faced by leaders who seek to promote diversity, as well as reveal novel ways to support them in their efforts. 

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©2016 by Andrea Vial.