If you've ever felt that trying to persuade your boss to change his or her mind is an almost impossible task, it seems that you might be right. Because psychologists have found that power makes people more confident of themselves and much less likely to be swayed by argument.
According to a new study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people in positions of power have confidence in what they are thinking – which makes them unlikely to change their position.
But put them in a situation where they don't feel as powerful and you will have a much better chance of getting them to consider new ideas.
"If you temporarily make a powerful person feel less powerful, you have a better chance of getting them to pay attention," said Pablo Briñol, lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain.
The study, which claims to be the first to look at how the power of a message's recipient affects persuasion, found that in role-playing exercises, people who feel less powerful are also less confident about the validity of their arguments.
"Our research shows that power makes people more confident in their beliefs, but power is only one thing that affects confidence," said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
It is also important when people are feeling powerful, Petty added – before or after they receive a persuasive message. If the message comes right after their power is made relevant to them, then powerful people will be difficult to persuade because they are confident in their existing opinions.
However, if people can be made to feel powerful right after a strong persuasive message, attitude change is more likely because powerful individuals will feel confident in the positive thoughts they generate to the message.
For example, if you have strong arguments to get a raise, try not to ask the boss in her office, where she is surrounded by the trappings of power. Bring up the topic in a lunch room or somewhere where there aren't reminders of who is in charge.
But if you do have to talk in the boss's office, try to say something that shakes his or her confidence.
"Try to bring up something that the boss doesn't know, something that makes him less certain and that tempers his confidence," Petty said.
But once you do make your argument, assuming it is cogent, it is good to remind the boss that he is in charge.
"You want to sow all your arguments when the boss is not thinking of his power, and after you make a good case, then remind your boss of his power. Then he will be more confident in his own evaluation of what you say. As long as you make good arguments, he will be more likely to be persuaded."
Petty added that the research has cast doubt on the belief that power corrupts people and leads them to negative actions. Instead, he argues, what it does is make people more likely to unquestionably believe their own thoughts and act on them.
Both low- and high-power people may have negative thoughts at times, and think about doing something bad. But because high-power people are more confident in their thoughts – and less susceptible to countering views – they are more likely to follow through into action.
"A lot of people may have a momentary thought about doing something bad, but they don't do it because they can inhibit themselves. A powerful person is more likely to follow through on the negative thoughts," Petty said.
By the same token, if a powerful person has a positive, pro-social thought, she may be more likely to follow through on that thought and turn it into reality.
"Powerful people are more likely to act on what they are thinking – good or bad – without second guessing themselves."