Power Problems: Supervisors Who Transfer Traits to Employees

Assumptions and misperceptions are often tricky to track. Professor Jennifer Overbeck has been studying problems associated with positions of power, particularly “self anchoring,” when those in executive positions assume their employees share their traits, especially their weaknesses. A boss who thinks his or her whole office can’t stay on schedule may be the only one with time management issues.

Overbeck joined the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business in 2012. She was previously on the management faculty at the University of Southern California, and before that, she was a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Overbeck previously worked for the Princeton Review as vice president of operations. She teaches managing and leading in organizations in the PMBA program.

Diversity Executive recently spoke with Overbeck, and excerpts from the interview appear below.

What is self anchoring? What impact does it have?

Self-anchoring means that we use (“anchor on”) ourselves as the reference point for figuring out information about other people. For example, if we have conservative beliefs, then self-anchoring would cause us to believe that other people also have conservative beliefs. It matters because self-anchoring is an error; when we self-anchor we (unintentionally) misrepresent reality and see the world in a way that’s generally more favorable to ourselves.

Did your study indicate reasons why it happens? Are their common factors like company role, stress or work-life balance?

Research has shown that people tend to self-anchor in general, and there’s no necessary trigger. Our study showed that powerful people tend to do it even more — particularly regarding their negative characteristics — so this might suggest that one trigger is feeling that you have some kind of less-than-desirable feelings or traits that make you uncomfortable.

How does self-anchoring relate to your previous research? Is it a new phenomenon or an old occurrence that hasn’t been examined until now?

Psychologists have known about self-anchoring for a long time, but no one had examined its relationship to power. I’ve been very interested in power effects — how power changes the way people see themselves and each other. I’ve generally found that power doesn’t corrupt — powerful people want to do a good job and they try to pay attention to others. But they can find themselves in situations, such as having to represent the group (or company) and speak on its behalf, which lead them to engage in tendencies like this that look very self-centered.

What drew you to this type of research?

I’ve been interested in power dynamics ever since the Rodney King riots in L.A. in the 1990s — because power differences have so much effect on how we interact, what’s possible for us and what we believe is possible. Since I study management and organizations, which are systems that constantly and thoroughly involve power, it’s even more relevant.

What kind of advice would you give an individual just starting in a management role?

In general, I’d say to pay attention to power in the workplace, don’t pretend that it doesn’t matter and do what you can to find some power yourself. Power is the ability to get things done, and you want to get things done. Specific to this work, I’d say it’s important to be really clear with your supervisors about what you think. They may be likely to assume you just agree with them. If you don’t, you may need to work on ways to express your views clearly and unambiguously. But of course, also be careful to ensure that you are diplomatic. It’s a delicate balance.

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.