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Being promoted gives you strong sense of group identity

Christian Fernsby |
What has kept these leaders from actually speaking out against unethical practices?

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Jessica A. Kennedy conducted a series of studies with my co-author, Cameron Anderson, at the University of California, Berkeley.

They consistently found that holding a higher rank within a group strengthens people’s identification with that group, in turn blinding them to the group’s unethical practices.

This means that even if leaders are otherwise highly ethical, the higher they rise within their own organizations, the less likely they are to speak out.

In their experiments, rank made a huge impact on participants’ likelihood to dissent.

When the group wanted to lie, 39% of low-ranking participants and 38% of the participants who hadn’t been assigned a rank dissented — compared to only 14% of high-ranking participants.

Conversely, when the group leaned toward telling the truth, 9% of low-ranking participants and 11% of non-ranked participants pushed for lying — compared to just 2% of those with high rank.

This suggests that rank didn’t correlate with a preference for lying or truth telling — it simply correlated with a preference for going along with the group.

This tendency for higher-ranking people to avoid dissenting may seem surprising. After all, leaders generally have less to fear by disagreeing, since they are the ones in charge of evaluating others.

But the key factor at play is group identification. When people hold higher rank, they define themselves more in terms of their group membership, agreeing more strongly with statements such as, “I feel connected to this group” and “I value my membership in this group.”

Even in a lab setting, in which rank was in fact assigned arbitrarily, being told that they held higher rank significantly strengthened participants’ level of identification with the group — which in turn made them much less likely to speak out against that group.

In most real-world cases, high rank engenders significant identification with the group, which helps to explain why high-ranking people can often struggle to identify unethical practices within their organizations.

These people aren’t inherently less ethical — but holding higher rank increases their sense of identification with the group, and that leads to more favorable impressions of the group’s practices.

In other words, higher rank acts as a blinder, making unethical practices harder for these people to detect.

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