Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone

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For centuries, philosophers and scientists have been interested in how people relate to power. Now a new study has revealed that the testosterone levels of leaders can influence their behavior and induce them to make decisions to solely increasing their personal payouts.

 Video: 14 min 

AntonakisJohn Antonakis is a professor of Organizational Behavior. His research is currently focused on leadership development, power, personality, and causal analysis.
ZehnderChristian Zehnder is a professor of Organizational Behavior. His work focuses on behavioral economics, a line of research that combines insights from economics and psychology.

Why are powerful leaders so often corrupt? What is it about power that appears to attract those who abuse it for personal gain? Is it power itself that corrupts or do the personality profiles of those involved in corruption and greed also factor in?

To shed new light on the question, a study was led jointly by HEC Lausanne researchers John Antonakis, Christian Zehnder and Samuel Bendahan and the CHUV’s neuroendocrinologist, François Pralong.
The team of researchers put over 700 participants through two incentivized experimental games to observe the extent to which leaders behave in an antisocial manner and are willing to violate social norms to profit themselves.

Some participants received more and others less power. Power was manipulated in terms of number of followers a leader had as well as what discretionary choices the leader had with respect to allocation of payouts to himself or herself and followers.

The rules of the game were simple. Each leader had a pot of real money available to distribute to their team. With the ‘default’ option, leaders received slightly more than their followers. However, if they wanted to, leaders could take less and increase their team members’ payout. Or the leader could be more selfish, reducing the payment to their followers in order to put more money in their own pockets.

In some variants of the game, leaders could take a very anti-social decision and reduce team members’ payouts even more. But these decisions had an economic cost because the losses incurred by team members were always higher than any gains that could be made by leaders.

The results, published in the journal The Leadership Quarterly, were unequivocal. With increasing power – that is number of subordinate under the leader or the number of decision choices available to the leader – leaders were inclined to look out for their own self-interest at the expense of those for whom they were responsible. Even those who have honest and socially-acceptable attitudes at the moment of their accession to a position of leadership rather easily changed their moral perspectives once they got a taste of power.

But that isn’t all. The researchers also measured the participant’s baseline levels of testosterone, which other studies show predicts antisocial behavior and self-centeredness, as well as lower capacity for empathy. The study discovered that individual differences, such as endogenous testosterone level, influence corruption. Specifically, leaders were more corrupt when they had plenty of power and a high testosterone levels. It is therefore possible to predict the behavior of a leader taking into account these two factors: the degree of power and the individual determinants.

According to the authors, the implications of this study are far reaching. Corruption depends on power. But it depends on the person too. Individuals responsible for organizational governance mechanisms need to pause and think about how much power and discretionary choices leaders should have. At the very least, organizations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.

Read the original research paper: Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone, Samuel Bendahan, Christian Zehnder, François P. Pralong and John Antonakis, The Leadership Quarterly (2014).