With Great Power Comes Great Job Demands, Stress

How Being The Boss Brings More Demands, Not More Freedom

Mar 23, 2021
Management and Organization
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Do you dream of climbing the corporate ladder to the top, envisioning how being the boss will give you the freedom to call the shots? The reality is, having power makes your job feel more demanding and can cause you more stress and physical ailments, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Trevor A. Foulk. But it’s not all bad.

Power is a double-edged sword, says Foulk: it makes your job more demanding, which has both good implications and bad implications, simultaneously.

“Those job demands can make you actually accomplish your goals and feel like your job is more meaningful,” Foulk says. “But at the same time, the job demands can make you feel more anxious and feel more physical pain.”

Foulk worked with Klodiana Lanaj of the University of Florida on the research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology. They conducted a field experiment to gauge the mental and physical effects of power. They asked participants to fill out surveys for 10 workdays. At intervals through the day, they asked people to report how demanding their jobs felt, how much goal progress they had made, how meaningful their work felt, as well as how they felt mentally and physically.

“On days where people felt more powerful they perceived their jobs to be more demanding, which both helped and hurt. These power-induced job demands helped in terms of goal progress and meaningfulness, but also hurt in terms of physical discomfort and anxiety” says Foulk.

They corroborated the findings with a lab-based simulation.

“The finding that power makes your job feel more demanding is novel compared to the way we tend to think about power,” says Foulk. “Generally, we associate feeling powerful with freedom from constraints, but here we find the opposite.”

Having more power at work, says Foulk, makes individuals more focused on meeting the goals associated with their role.

“When we feel powerful, that sort of myopic tunnel-vision on our goals is what makes us feel like our jobs are more demanding,” he says. “Powerful leaders can get so focused on what they want and need to do that it’s all they really see. So instead of being aligned with this assumption that power is freeing, really this goal-focused nature of power actually makes it feel more demanding.”

Though the research didn’t specifically address how leaders might amplify the good and minimize the bad effects of job demands and power, he says there are things individuals and organizations can do to help. He says organizations could work on building a supportive workplace culture and consider offering resources for anxiety and stress-related physical issues. For the leaders themselves, just being aware of the effects of power is important, says Foulk.

“One of the practical implications of the research is that it can at least help powerful leaders understand that what they are experiencing is normal. This is the way it’s supposed to work. It’s easy for a powerful leader to feel really burdened and assume there is something wrong with them, but this is the nature of power.”

So should you even go for that leadership position then?

“Leader roles and power positions in general aren’t good or bad,” Foulk says. “Just understand that they’re complex. There are going to be positive implications and negative implications.”

But that doesn’t mean that everyone should constantly strive for more power, says Foulk.

“There’s this implicit assumption that as you do, life will get better. But many people don’t find that. There isn’t some level of the corporate ladder where all the sudden, problems dissipate. Understanding that would be helpful and useful for leaders.”

Read the full research, “With Great Power Comes More Job Demands: The Dynamic Effects of Experienced Power on Perceived Job Demands and Their Discordant Effects on Employee Outcomes,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

 

About the Author(s)

Dr. Trevor Foulk is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, and his Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts.

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