By the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (www.pon.harvard.edu)
New research on executive performance suggests that those with power may be more focused negotiators than the powerless -- but not for the reasons you might expect.
Feeling powerful can bring a significant advantage at the bargaining table. Negotiators are more likely to make the first offer, to persist when confronted with obstacles, and to set more ambitious goals when they possess strength, or even when they simply feel strong, than when they do not. Powerful negotiators also take more creative risks than the powerless and are less likely to be steered off course by their counterparts' emotions.
These are past lessons from research by professor Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and his colleagues. In a new study published in "Psychological Science," Galinsky and colleagues Pamela K. Smith, Nils B. Jostmann, and Wilco W. van Dijk found that feeling powerful also appears to improve performance on executive tasks involving high-level thinking, such as goal setting and planning.
This finding meshes with research on stereotypes that suggests the performance of those who feel unfairly judged suffers under scrutiny. Together, these findings offer guidance for leaders seeking to boost their employees' performance in negotiation and other high-level tasks.
In a series of four experiments, Galinsky and colleagues tested participants on two key executive tasks: the ability to stay focused on goals and the ability to plan for the future in the face of distractions and interference. For negotiators, these are critical skills.
Students at a university in the Netherlands engaged in three computer tasks measuring these executive skills. Before the tasks began, the researchers used a variety of psychological manipulations to make the students feel powerless, powerful or neutral. Those who felt powerless performed worse than powerful and neutral participants on all the tasks.
The researchers observed that low-power participants had trouble keeping a goal in their working memory in the face of various distractions. This was true despite the fact that the low-power participants reported putting just as much effort into the tasks as the other participants.
According to the authors, the study implies it would be a mistake to assume that the powerful reach the upper ranks of their organizations based solely on merit, just as it would be a mistake to assume that the powerless are low achievers who lack talent, intelligence or motivation.
Rather, it appears that feeling powerless puts us at a psychological disadvantage on cognitive tasks. Related research by Smith and Yaacov Trope, professor of psychology at New York University, has found that low-power individuals tend to focus on details rather than the big picture, failing to see the forest for the trees.
Why might this be? Consider that those with less power are controlled by the whims of those around them, while the powerful tend to have more autonomy. You've probably observed that higher-ranking employees in your organization often have considerable freedom to set and pursue their long-term goals.
By contrast, write Galinsky and colleagues, the powerless may view themselves as "the means for other people's goals." During negotiations and other tasks, the knowledge that they are being observed, manipulated and judged may distract those with little power from the very goals they need to focus on to succeed.
Research on stereotypes has pointed to similar conclusions about how lack of power and status can affect performance on negotiation and other tasks. Laura Kray of the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues, including Galinsky, found in their research that women negotiators performed worse than men when they were led to believe that their performance reflected negotiating ability. The mention of "ability" seemed to trigger the stereotype that women are less effective negotiators than men.
Simply knowing that others may be judging us according to negative stereotypes can impair our performance, according to Stanford University professor Claude Steele. All of us -- from white males to African-American women to those low on the workplace totem pole -- experience this stereotype threat at different points in our lives. The fear of acting in a way that confirms a negative stereotype actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The performance of negotiators in your organization may be suffering due to their lack of power, status or other factors unrelated to their actual skills. To help improve their results, take these lessons to heart:
1. Enhance feelings of power. Engendering a sense of power in your employees should improve their ability to plan and follow through on their negotiation goals. Aside from granting more power through promotions and assignments, how can you help subordinates feel more powerful? Encourage them to suggest organizational improvements, and take their advice seriously. You can prompt negotiators in particular to feel more powerful by asking them, before they negotiate, to think about a situation in which they felt powerful, Galinsky's research has shown.
2. Set high standards. In one experiment, Steele, Geoffrey Cohen of the University of Colorado, and Lee Ross of Stanford found that African-American students became more motivated to improve essays they had written when they were told they were being assessed according to high standards that evaluators believed the students could meet. The students viewed this type of feedback as less racially biased than unvarnished feedback or feedback prefaced by a positive statement. Thus, you should hold low-power negotiators accountable to high, objective standards and openly express confidence in their ability to meet them.
3. Criticize constructively. Concern about others' potentially biased reactions can have a stronger impact on our performance than our own expectations, motivations, and confidence, according to Steele. That's why you should never assume that those with little power in your organization, such as entry-level managers or administrative staff, are less skilled or care less about their performance than those above them. Remember that the next time you're about to speak to someone about poor performance in a negotiation, and temper your criticisms with concern.