Maryland Smith Research / December 9, 2021

What Happens When You Feel Important at Work – and Then You Don’t.

Strategies to Minimize Stress When Your Authority Fluctuates Throughout the Day

What Happens When You Feel Important at Work – and Then You Don’t.

Even the most powerful manager sometimes cleans up dishes in the breakroom, and even the least powerful employees in organizations sometimes get to make important decisions. These examples indicate that power is a dynamic state – we often feel both powerful and powerless at work on any given day. New research from Maryland Smith’s Trevor Foulk suggests that this fluctuating sense of power can have surprising effects on our well-being. But with the right strategies, you can make power imbalances more manageable.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Foulk and three co-authors explore the disconnect people often feel between their job titles and their actual sense of power in the workplace – and why it matters.

Job titles are not verbs, say the researchers. While they may indicate something about your formal standing in an organization, they don’t necessarily reflect how powerful you actually feel on a daily basis at work.

“Our research reveals that first-person experiences with power at work can differ greatly from the level of power our job titles suggest,” they write. “We find that these power experiences can fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. Importantly, this fluctuation can come at a cost: decreased well-being.”

Foulk – along with Eric M. Anicich of the University of Southern California, Michael Schaerer of Singapore Management University, and Jake Gale, a PhD student at the University of Florida – explored power fluctuations and well-being with four studies.

In one study, they had 616 undergraduate students participate in a computer-based simulation of fluctuating power at work. They found that the more participants had to switch between high- and low-power mindsets, the more they reported psychological distress. In another study, they asked 100 employees to report their perceived feelings of power multiple times during the day, and then at the end of the day report their levels of distress and their physical stress symptoms (like headache or eye strain), during a 10-day period. They found that the more employees’ sense of power fluctuated during the day, the more distress and physical symptoms they reported.

“These findings suggest that job stress may be more a function of what we do, and how powerful or powerless what we do makes us feel, than our actual positions at work,” the researchers write.

One reason for all the stress, say the researchers, is because many jobs require a mix of roles and responsibilities that may feel incompatible with each other, or may be too much to fulfill in a given workday.

High- and lower-power roles often have very different expectations, say the researchers, making it particularly difficult if you’re switching between the two. Powerless employees might be expected to be quiet, wait for direction from senior employees, and avoid rocking the boat, they say. On the other hand, powerful employees are expected to be assertive and take control.

“If your job requires you to do both, you may experience distress because you (and others in your organization) expect these feelings to be mutually exclusive,” the researchers write. “That is just what we found in our studies: Employees whose sense of power fluctuated more (vs. less) experienced greater tension between their conflicting high and low-power roles which, in turn, was associated with increased psychological and physical harm.”

So how can you keep the power fluctuations to a minimum? The researchers offer these strategies:

Be deliberate with scheduling tasks. Cluster activities with similar levels of power together.

Give your work a routine. Consider “theming” together days with similar activities or block time periods for specific types of tasks. Create a routine: arrive at work and leave at the same time each day, use the first 15 minutes to create a plan for the day, and stick to regular break intervals.

Create a role-transcendent identity. Think of yourself as a “problem solver,” “relationship builder,” or “change enabler” instead of a boss or subordinate to embrace your different levels of power and help prevent conflicting mindsets.

Actively manage your well-being. You can’t always avoid power fluctuations at work, but you can try ways to alleviate any accompanying stress. Try expressive writing exercises, social sharing, taking short breaks, and mindfulness exercises – all easy, cheap (or free) options that can be done just about anywhere.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have experienced an emotional rollercoaster and shifting power dynamics at work, exacerbating stress levels, say the researchers.

“It is important for all employees to recognize that power fluctuation-induced stress is normal; just about everybody feels this way at one point or another,” they write. “So, when this happens, it’s okay to cut yourself some slack and use some of the strategies we recommend.”

Read the research, “When Your Authority Fluctuates Throughout the Day,” in Harvard Business Review.

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