It's lonely at the bottom (too) : The effects of experienced powerlessness on social closeness and disengagement

Trevor A. FOULK*, Irene E. DE PETER, Michael SCHAERER, Christilene DU PLESSIS, Randy LEE, Amir EREZ

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Although “powerlessness” is a pervasive experience for employees, prior social power research has predominantly focused on consequences of “powerfulness.” This has led to contradictory predictions for how experienced powerlessness influences employees’ social perceptions and behaviors. To resolve this theoretical tension, we build on Social Distance Theory (Magee & Smith) to develop a theoretical model suggesting that experienced powerlessness reduces social closeness and subsequently causes social disengagement behaviors both at work (reduced helping and increased interaction avoidance) and at home (increased withdrawal). Our model also elucidates the processes that cause powerlessness to reduce social closeness, demonstrating that employees’ affiliation motive and their expectation of others’ interest in affiliating explain this relationship. We further propose that the effect of powerlessness on social closeness will be stronger for employees high (vs. low) in political skill because these employees are more attuned to workplace power dynamics. We find support for our model in an experience-sampling field experiment and two experimental scenario studies. Our research clarifies the effects of powerlessness on social closeness and organizationally relevant downstream consequences, qualifies dominant assumptions that the powerless always behave in ways opposite those of the powerful, and demonstrates the importance of political skill as a moderator of power's effects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-394
Number of pages32
JournalPersonnel Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
InformationThis research was supported in part by a grant from the HSS Seed Fund under the National University of Singapore, Office of the Deputy President (Research and Technology), and in part by a Tier 1 Academic Research Fund from the Ministry of Education, Singapore (No. C207/MSS18B001).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • disengagement
  • political skill
  • powerlessness
  • social distance


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