Speaking Truth to Power: The Effect of Candid Feedback on How Individuals With Power Allocate Resources

OC Burak
Michael Ramsay BASHSHUR, Singapore Management University
Moore C


Subordinates are often seen as impotent, able to react to but not affect how powerholders treat them. Instead, we conceptualize subordinate feedback as an important trigger of powerholders' behavioral self-regulation and explore subordinates' reciprocal influence on how powerholders allocate resources to them over time. In 2 experiments using a multiparty, multiround dictator game paradigm, we found that when subordinates provided candid feedback about whether they found prior allocations to be fair or unfair, powerholders regulated how self-interested their allocations were over time. However, when subordinates provided compliant feedback about powerholders' prior allocation decisions (offered consistently positive feedback, regardless of the powerholders' prior allocation), those powerholders made increasingly self-interested allocations over time. In addition, we showed that guilt partially mediates this relationship: powerholders feel more guilty after receiving negative feedback about an allocation, subsequently leading to a less self-interested allocation, whereas they feel less guilty after receiving positive feedback about an allocation, subsequently taking more for themselves. Our findings integrate the literature on upward feedback with theory about moral self-regulation to support the idea that subordinates are an important source of influence over those who hold power over them.