Feeling Powerless

Feeling powerless is no fun. A lack of control can make the difference between contented and unhappy employees. But new research shows that a lack of power doesn’t just make people feel disgruntled. It has a more fundamental effect on their mental skills.

In a series of experiments, Pamela Smith from Radboud University Nijmegen has shown that the powerless actually take a measurable hit to important mental abilities. Even if people are subconsciously primed with the concept of being powerless, they perform more poorly at tasks designed to assess their ability to plan, focus on goals and ignore distractions.

According to previous research, a lack of power forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own goals and monitor more senior individuals. Without authority, a person’s actions rely on instructions and may constantly change at the whim of their superiors, whose own motives and goals must be guessed at. Monkeys show similar behaviour.

Power doesn’t have to come through rank – it can also be assigned on a case-by-case basis. Delegating jobs to people isn’t simply about telling them what to do; good managers will hand over not only tasks, but the authority to carry out those tasks. Employees tend to perform better if they have the ability to make their own decisions within certain confines, and take ownership of their own work. The alternative – peering over their shoulders and dictating their every move – is a sure-fire route to poor results.

The results are especially interesting for professions where stakes are high and errors can cost lives, such as medicine, or where critical events are rare and goals must be kept firmly in mind, such as security. In such situations, improving the executive functions of employees by awarding them greater self-sufficiency and authority seems to be a no-brainer.


Smith, P.K., Jostmann, N.B., Galinsky, A.D., van Dijk, W.W. (2008). Lacking Power Impairs Executive Functions. Psychological Science, 19(5), 441-447. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02107.x