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Power causes distrust and punishments are not effective

Staff writer |
When leaders punish subordinates, they often do this out of distrust. They are afraid of losing their position and use punishment as a deterrent.

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However, their punishments are not very effective, says social and organisational psychologist Marlon Mooijman.

Distrust is the main reason why leaders impose punishments on the people over whom they have power. This is clearly demonstrated by Marlon Mooijman's PhD research. "Leaders expect other people not to obey the rules, and punish them on the basis of this distrust."

Ironically, it turns out that these punishments are not very effective and perhaps even exacerbate the situation, continues Mooijman.

"When people feel distrusted, they are less likely to obey the rules. They see this assumption on the part of the leaders as a sign of disrespect. It also violates an implicit social contract: 'If you treat me well, I will act accordingly.'"

"Leaders are people who control valuable resources. A manager can decide whether an employee gets a bonus, for instance. A judge can decide whether or not someone keeps their freedom."

But why are leaders so distrustful? Mooijman suggests that they are afraid of losing their power, and act out of the desire to protect that power. "Leaders are afraid that if they are too trusting of others, this trust can be abused. This would then, of course, threaten their position."

The consequence is that leaders mainly use punishment as a deterrent, to ensure that similar rule breaking never happens again. Unfortunately, punishments of this kind do not have the desired effect. "We see that some power systems can actually exacerbate the problems." This particularly relates to issues such as unethical behaviour, plagiarism and fraud.

Mooijman asked people with power to complete questionnaires. He also conducted experiments in the Faculty lab with groups of students, who were temporarily assigned to a manager position.

"I also manipulated their sense of having power. Students were asked to write about an incident in which they felt very powerful, or conversely very powerless. They then had to decide how someone who had committed plagiarism should be punished.

"Students who had been made to feel powerful were found to favour punishments designed to make an example of the offenders. The deterrent aspect was important, and some were even prepared to publicly name the people who had committed plagiarism."

Compliance with rules is important in society. An example is the recent financial crisis, which was caused by rule breaking. Mooijman: "This is why it's important to know when power structures help to prevent unethical behaviour. My research makes a contribution to this."

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