The Thing Most Bosses Are Really Good At

Tiptoeing around the boss for fear of offending him or her isn't as necessary as some employees make it out to be, a new study finds.

Research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that people in power have thicker skins than one might think. Specifically, the study discovered that people in authority positions, whether at home or in the workplace, recover more quickly from mild rejection and will seek out social bonding opportunities even after being rebuffed.

"Powerful people appear to be better at dealing with the slings and arrows of social life," said Maya Kuehn, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. "They're more buffered from the negative feelings that rejection typically elicits."

For the study, researchers conducted five experiments that examined power dynamics in both the workplace and in intimate relationships. Researchers focused on how being in a position of power influences a person's responses to subtle acts of rejection.

In one experiment, scientists assigned participants to either high- or low-level positions in a workplace and then told the subjects they hadn't been invited to an office happy hour gathering. While low-level employees reported feeling stung by the rejection, the high-power ones were relatively unfazed and more likely to seek out other social bonding activities, such as a joining hiking club, to improve relationships with their co-workers.

In another experiment, researchers told participants that they were working with someone in either a supervisory or a subordinate role. The participants then corresponded with that person and received feedback that could be perceived as mild rejection. The experiment showed that those who had been assigned supervisory roles acted with indifference to perceived snubs from their underlings, while subordinates took offense to similar barbs from their bosses.

"When rejected instead of accepted, subordinates reported lower self-esteem and greater negative emotion, but supervisors did not show an adverse reaction to rejection," Kuehn said.

In another experiment involving romantic relationships, researchers brought couples into a lab setting and videotaped the pairs discussing problem-solving tasks, such as what to do if they were on an airplane that crashed in the wilderness. Before these conversations, the couples had rated each other in terms of who held the most power in their real-life relationships and how responsive their partners had been to their needs that day.

The researchers found that those partners who perceived themselves as less powerful were less positive during the videotaped discussion when working on a solution with their mate. By comparison, the more-dominant partners acted more upbeat and worked harder at connecting and getting their spouses on their sides.

The study, which was co-authored by UC Berkeley psychologists Serena Chen and Amie Gordon, was presented at this month's Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans.

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