When the boss feels inadequate: power, incompetence, and aggression

Psychol Sci. 2009 Nov;20(11):1406-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02452.x. Epub 2009 Oct 8.


When and why do power holders seek to harm other people? The present research examined the idea that aggression among the powerful is often the result of a threatened ego. Four studies demonstrated that individuals with power become aggressive when they feel incompetent in the domain of power. Regardless of whether power was measured in the workplace (Studies 1 and 4), manipulated via role recall (Study 2), or assigned in the laboratory (Study 3), it was associated with heightened aggression when paired with a lack of self-perceived competence. As hypothesized, this aggression appeared to be driven by ego threat: Aggressiveness was eliminated among participants whose sense of self-worth was boosted (Studies 3 and 4). Taken together, these findings suggest that (a) power paired with self-perceived incompetence leads to aggression, and (b) this aggressive response is driven by feelings of ego defensiveness. Implications for research on power, competence, and aggression are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Female
  • Hierarchy, Social*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personnel Management*
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Self Concept*
  • Workplace*
  • Young Adult