Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Powerful or Powerless When Change Is Needed: Effects of Power on Escalation of Commitment

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Powerful or Powerless When Change Is Needed: Effects of Power on Escalation of Commitment

Article excerpt

Findings in research on escalation of commitment (EOC) have shown that decision makers tend to continue on a course of action when the performance expectation is unmet and the goal attainment is uncertain (Bowen, 1987; Staw, 1976, 1981). Persisting with a course of action that is not succeeding, even when it is economically irrational, sometimes results in disastrous outcomes (see e.g., Ross & Staw, 1993). As Sleesman, Conlon, McNamara, and Miles (2012) pointed out in their meta-analysis, most researchers on the phenomenon of EOC have focused on project and psychological determinants. Supporting their call to advance the understanding of EOC by the inclusion of social and structural determinants, researchers have shown that the escalation commitment decision relates to factors such as public justification (Mahlendorf & Wallenburg, 2013).

In this paper, we proposed power as a determinant of individuals' decision making in an escalation situation. Power is commonly defined as the capability to influence others and resist their influence through the ability to control resources and administer rewards and punishments (Anderson & Galinsky, 2006). An individual's personal sense of power is "the perception of one's ability to influence another person or other people" (Anderson, John, & Keltner, 2012, p. 316). It has effects similar to those of manipulated power, and mediates the effects of assigned power (Anderson & Berdahl, 2002; Côté et al., 2011). The salience and effects of personal sense of power may be intensified by the threat of negative performance feedback. Power is seen as a psychological attribute as well as an attribute of social relationships (Anderson et al., 2012; Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003; Maner, Gailliot, Butz, & Peruche, 2007). Therefore, we expected that investigating how power affects EOC would provide insight into the integration of EOC theories. Researchers have suggested that power may affect the tendency of individuals to escalate their commitment through multiple mechanisms. For example, powerful (high-power) individuals are more likely to discount negative feedback than are powerless (low-power) individuals (Cho & Fast, 2012), and individuals with a positive self-concept tend to believe that they can overcome the negative aspects of a situation (Staw & Fox, 1977).

Despite the theoretical interest and indirect evidence, there is still a lack of exploration of the relationship between power and EOC. The objective of our research, therefore, was to investigate whether or not, and if so how, individuals with or without power behave differently in an EOC situation. We delineated how power affects the salience of motivational and cognitive approaches in an EOC situation, and then conducted two studies in which we tested the prediction that both having high power and having low power lead to greater EOC than does having moderate power.

Motivational and Cognitive Approaches in Explaining Escalation of Commitment

Most EOC theorists have emphasized either motivational or cognitive processes. The motivational approach to EOC mainly involves three processes: self-justification, self-presentation, and normative conformity. Negative feedback in an EOC situation threatens the individual's competence, and motivates him or her to justify the initial decision by investing more in the failing option (Staw, 1976, 1981). The competence requirement can be internal, as individuals strive to preserve a positive self-concept (Brockner et al., 1986; Schaumberg & Wiltermuth, 2014), or it can be external, as they need to prove the correctness of their decision to others. Consistent with the external-competence requirement, the self-presentation explanation means that when outside evaluators link individuals to the failure, EOC provides a way to avoid public embarrassment and to save face (Brockner, Rubin, & Lang, 1981). In a survey of 247 failed company projects Mahlendorf and Wallenburg (2013) found that public justification increased the tendency to EOC. …

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