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Aug. 6, 2004

Power motivation research: Feel your pain or feel lonely at the top?

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Bill Clinton told Americans “I feel your pain.” Is a powerful leader really in touch with everyday people or isolated and lonely at the top? It depends on how deliberately one pursues power, according to new research at the University of Michigan.

“Power affects your emotions and behavior and we want to examine how it affects someone’s self-identity,’’ said Fiona Lee, a U-M psychology and business professor who is an expert on organizational behavior. “Does power make the power-holder feel disconnected, do they have a harder time relating to others, and generally become more lonely at the top? Or does power help the power-holder feel like they know everyone, can influence others to get things done, and therefore feel more connected to others?"

It depends on how deliberately and strategically one thinks about power. The more you think about power, Lee said, the more likely you will dwell on how you can build relationships with others and how other people can help you get things done. In this case, having power makes one feel more connected to others.

Lee and U-M graduate student Brianna Barker worked with Stanford University organizational behavior professor Larissa Tiedens to learn how power affects someone’s self concept, specifically examining whether it makes people feel more alone or more connected with others. They presented findings from two different studies at the annual conference of the American Psychological Association this week.

“Some people are in very high power jobs, but they are not necessarily motivated by power,” Lee said. “They may not think a lot about how to gain and accrue power in their everyday lives. For these people, having more power is related to feeling more disconnected to others.

“However, some people are interested in a job precisely because it affords a lot of power and influence. For these individuals, they are constantly thinking about how to use their relationships to influence others, and in this case, having more power makes them feel more connected to other people.’’

Does your boss seem connected to a large number of people and “in the know’’ or seem isolated and disconnected from the crowd? It often depends on a person’s comfort level with pursuing power.

“Clinton, like many politicians, may have to think very deliberately and strategically about how to use relationships to influence others—this may very well be part of their job as a politician,’’ Lee said.   “When power is such a salient part of their everyday lives, having power can indeed make them feel more connected to the public.’’                                              

For more on Lee, visit:

http://ipumich.temppublish.com/public/experts/ExpDisplay.php?ExpID=456

For more on Tiedens, visit:

http://gobi.stanford.edu/facultybios/bio.asp?ID=182

Contact: Joe Serwach
Phone: (734) 647-1844
E-mail: jserwach@umich.edu