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Responsibility as a burden

28/03/2018 | Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien

People in high-power positions experience more stress if they are aware of their responsibility than if they recognize the freedom their position provides.


People in high-power positions experience more stress if they are aware of their responsibility than if they recognize the freedom their position provides. Research of the Leibniz-Institut für issensmedien (IWM) in Tübingen has shown this. If power-holders think about their responsibility (rather than their personal freedom) they do act more fairly towards others – but at the same time, their own stress level rises.

A position of power can tempt people to focus primarily on their personal benefits, just as the famous phrase “power corrupts” says. However, this is not always the case. Especially people in high-power positions, like managers or team leaders, are often aware of their responsibility for others. This has positive consequences for others, such as, how fairly power-holders collaborate with and treat their employees. But how does being aware of their responsibility affect the power-holders?

Participants who talked about their responsibilities as a power-holder showed more stress than those who talked about their freedom and opportunities. The researchers, led by Dr. Annika Scholl of the lab Social Processes at the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, wanted to answer this question. In one of five studies, they invited students to deliver a speech about a personal experience. This experience should include an event in which the participants had experienced power and influence. One group of participants was asked to talk about the freedom they had experienced in the situation. The others should recount the responsibility they had experienced in this moment. While participants delivered the speech in front of a camera, the researchers measured their stress level. Using common physiological assessment, they captured indicators for the performance of the heart – an indicator of the stress level participants experienced while recounting their personal experience.

“People seemed, in some way, to experience the responsibility as part of their power position as a burden.” The experiment showed: Participants who talked about their responsibility exhibited more stress than the ones talking about their opportunity – even though people in both groups experienced the same extent of power and influence. Moreover, these effects only appeared for people high in power – a comparison with people low in power showed: Responsibility increased stress among those high in power, but not those low in power (with the latter also talking about either their freedom or responsibility). In conclusion, it is not responsibility in itself that leads to more stress, but responsibility in combination with a high-power position. Four additional studies confirmed these findings, including a survey among leaders. “People seemed, in some way, to perceive the responsibility as part of their power position as a burden,” Dr. Annika Scholl says. “This may be because power-holders, here, become aware of all the duties to be fulfilled within such a position. For us, the question remains how power-holders can learn to deal with this in the long-run.” To answer this question, the researchers are working on further research on this topic.

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Mira Keßler
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Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (IWM)
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presse(at)iwm-tuebingen.de

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