Petty tyrants or prosocial agents? Higher-up managers’ behavioural integrity as a regulatory force of subordinate managers’ use of power

Project: Research project

Project Details


When there are no effective external monitoring mechanisms in place, powerholders tend to abuse their power for self-interests and mistreat others. Unlike in democratic governments, in business organizations, the absence of systems of checks and balances may promote managers’ destructive leadership behaviors such as self-serving behaviors (Rus, vanKnippenberg, &Wisse, 2010), abusive supervision (e.g., Tepper, 2000; Xu, Huang, Jia, Xu, Liu, Graham, & Snape, 2020; Xu, Huang, Lam, & Miao, 2012; Walter, Lam, Van der Vegt, Huang, & Miao, 2015), and undermining employees they supervise (Duffy, Ganster, Shaw, Johnson, & Pagon., 2006). While research has suggested that unconstrained power in
organizations breeds “petty tyrants” in organizations (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003; Lam, Walter, & Huang, 2017),who tend to treat others in a punitive, arbitrary, and uncaring manner (Ashforth, 1994), the leadership literature has accumulated abundant evidence that many power-holding managers also act as “prosocial agents”, exhibiting leadership behaviors that are largely selfless and prosocial (Bass & Avolio, 1994; Judge & Piccolo, 2004). Indeed, recent psychological research on power suggests that power can motivate both destructive and constructive leadership behaviors, depending on power-holders’ internal forces, such as their self-restraints on their exercise of power and their personal orientation toward others (Foulk, Chighizola, & Chen, 2020). But most prior studies fall short in addressing what external forces organizations can employ to constrain powerholders’ malevolent behaviors and unleash their benevolent behaviors.

We therefore propose that in business organizations, higher-up managers’ behavioral patterns may serve as a critical and effective external monitoring and motivational mechanism that helps regulate subordinate managers’ use of power. We draw from the focus theory of normative behavior (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990) to suggest that the malevolent or benevolent consequences of subordinate managers’ psychological power may depend on the extent to which their higher-up managers display integrity (behaviors characterized by moral principles, word-deed alignment, and situational consistency). Higher-up managers with high integrity may act as a powerful external force to deter subordinate managers from abusing their power and to motivate subordinate managers to use their power for the benefit of others. We will test our propositions using a lab experiment and a multi-wave, multisource field study.
Effective start/end date1/01/2431/12/26


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