Universiteit Leiden

Attention and Conformity - like a boss

Attention and Conformity - like a boss

Everybody wants power. Those who are in power want to keep it and those who don’t, want to gain it. How about leaders who acquired their position illegitimately? Which strategies do illegitimate leaders use to protect their position?

Imagine a good friend offers you a high position at her company. You are not the most qualified for this job and therefore you do not feel like you really deserve it. It is clear to you, as well as your subordinates, that you only got the job because of your friend. However, you decide to take it. It is good money after all. Since it is advantageous to be in power, you would probably want to hold your position although you might feel that it is not fully legitimate. Your subordinates who feel that this power distribution is unfair, on the other hand, might strive for more power. In order to secure your position, would you adapt your behavior? Do these adaptations even reach an unconscious cognitive level?

Conformity – like a(n illegitimate) boss

Hays and Goldstein looked at conformity in illegitimate leaders. The questions they asked themselves were the following: would an illegitimate leader conform to the existing norm to show that he or she belongs to the company or would he or she rather try to show that he or she is independent and deserves to be in this position? In one field study and four experiments, they investigated exactly this. The study’s findings suggest that illegitimate leaders tend to conform to the group more than legitimate leaders. Subordinates who feel like they deserve to have more power, on the other hand, act more independent. Going back to the situation where your friend gets you that high-power position, this would mean that you act according to the existing norms of that company to show your group-orientation and thereby secure your position as a leader. On the contrary, a colleague of you who feels disadvantaged may act more independently and not stick to the group norms that much. But how about processes that are more cognitive? Could these be shaped by such a situation as well?


Attention is a selective process that enables us to filter the important information from our environment. Our environment and the situation we are in change several times in one day, and with them change the things that are important to attend to. Therefore, it seems only logically that our attentional focus is dependent on a situation. So far so simple. But how about social settings? For example, do leaders attend to different things than their subordinates? Does it depend on how the leader got his or her position? In the situation described above for example, if one were to prevent a subordinate to steal the boss-role what should one attend to?

Attention – like a(n illegitimate) boss

Stamkou and her colleagues hypothesized that worrying about the own position in a hierarchy makes us more attentive to certain emotions. Let’s go back to your situation: Which emotional expression could signal that your hierarchical stand is in danger?

In a series of three experiments, Stamkou investigated which emotional expressions illegitimate leaders gave most attention to. In order to create the hierarchy-concern condition, the experimenters used two different methods: They assigned a leader role to participants but at the same time gave feedback that let them doubt their legitimacy for this position. The second method they used was creating a mismatch between participants’ personalities and whether they had high or low power. Someone who has high trait power but was assigned a lower power role may feel entitled to more power and accordingly strive for it. On the other hand, participants with low trait power who are assigned the leadership role, may feel that their position is illegitimate and fear that someone may take it from them.

So back to the questions: In your position as an illegitimate leader, which emotion of your colleagues should you be worried about most? Yes, anger! And voilà, this is exactly what Stamkou and her colleagues found. People that were assigned an illegitimate high-power position attended more to expressions of anger which enabled them to detect them faster than leaders who did not feel that their position was unjustified. Anger may signal a threat to your high-power position. Furthermore, subordinates paid more attention to expressions of fear if they had the feeling that their low position was unjustified. These findings suggest that our attention adapts to the social setting we are in and helps us to either protect or improve our place in the hierarchy.

What do we learn from these findings? Power is nice and we do what we can to keep it. Not only do illegitimate leaders conform more to the norm of the group in order to signal their affiliation but they also attend more to expressions of anger to spot subordinates who may threaten their position. So taking that leading position your friend offered might actually change your behavior and attentional processes.


Hays, N.A., & Goldstein, N.J. (2015). Power and legitimacy influence conformity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. DOI 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.010
Stamkou, E., van Kleef, G.A., Fischer, A.H., & Kret, M.E. (2016). Are the Powerful Really Blind to the Feelings of Others? How Hierarchical Concerns Shape Attention to Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI 10.1177/0146167216636632

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