The dictionary defines power as “control and influence exercised over others”. With positions of management, and leadership, comes power and it seems to sit more comfortably with some than others. It is increasingly recognised that organisations need good leaders if they are to go forward successfully. Their people will feel motivated, empowered and want to contribute. Leaders who are not using their power positively and abusing will act in a way which will be coercive and, in extremes, could be bullying. This latter situation is one which appears to be on the increase and is creating further problems in the workplace such as stress. This article will look at what is “power” and how it can be used productively. We want to consider how leaders can become more confident in their positions and with their power and explore the benefits for all parties when they do.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There are two elements of power in an organisational context – “position power” and “personal power”. The leader has “position power” given from the organisation. This comes from the authority which the job role has to do things or make things happen. The “personal power” is about the degree of influence the individual has and is given by the followers. The two are interlinked to an extent. People will look to the leader’s “position power” and give them a degree of “personal power” based on how they perceive the leader might influence them. Equally, when organisations are looking to promote someone, the more aware ones will look to see how well individuals can seem to influence others around them – and give them some “position power”.
Problems arise when people are put into roles where they have considerable “position power” but feel out of their depth and under-confident. What starts to happen is that they feel a need to cover their discomfort and they begin to do this by abusing the power they hold. Over my years of working with organisations, I have heard and seen so many examples of poor or inappropriate behaviour from various levels of management and leadership. This is despite the amount of training which many of these people have participated in! I wonder how many times you have been on the receiving end of such behaviour? More to the point, how many of you have been guilty of using them? Sometimes, these abuses of power are obvious:
- shouting, screaming even, at staff;
- threats being used;
- unreasonable demands;
- intimidating body language;
- being a time-stealer to staff;
- setting unreasonable levels of expectation, etc.
The list can go on beyond this – and could expand to include some less obvious behaviours. Why is it that so many previously reasonable people can start to behave so unreasonably? Experience suggests that one factor is that they are often merely carrying on a trend from their bosses! If there are not good role models, it can be difficult to behave correctly. However, this is something of an excuse. What is really going to be achieved with abuse of power? The daily reports of problems with bullying in the workplace, increasing stress-related problems in the workplace are clear indicators of that this is an on-going issue.
The consequences for the organisation, and the leaders, can be significant. There are probably issues with productivity and effectiveness, absenteeism (or just presenteeism!), and possibly staff retention is also a problem? If these things are happening, there as a potential for a vicious spiral – the manager feels under more pressure and passes this on with even more inappropriate use of their “position power”.
The flip-side is to consider what can happen when the leader is able to use their power in a constructive manner. Why are they able to do this? Partly it is because they are comfortable with their “personal power” and adjust to the additional “position power”. Maybe they have the right role models, or suitable training. They do recognise that they can get more from their people by supporting and encouraging rather than coercing!
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.
For me, this quotation says a great deal about the two types of leader – the abusers of power are frequently out of their depth in their role. They fear losing their position and the likely loss of face, status and money. They do not feel that they can ask for help or support to improve the way they operate. Possibly, they believe it will be seen as a sign of weakness and so they aim to compensate with what they think is a show of strength.
Leaders have a right to ask things of their followers. There are many different ways they can go about this and there is no, one right way. At times a leader may need to be more directive and authoritative – at others more inclusive and supportive. Whatever the situation, the leader still operates from “position power” – and the good one, remains aware of their own “personal power”.
When you are in a position of leadership, stop and think about how you behave with those you are leading. You will gain far more “personal power” by treating people with respect – and earn it in return. Accept that with your position comes responsibility. Regardless of how your bosses may treat you, or colleagues treat their people, it is no excuse for you to abuse your power. Remember, the most effective way to engage people and to get them to work with and for you is to treat them as they want to be treated!! Pay attention to your behaviours and notice if you have any tendencies to make unreasonable demands or revert to authority to get things done. How difficult is it to think about the other person first and then ask for what you want in the most appropriate way?
As a leader, you have a choice about whether you abuse or use the power you are given. Many who are abusing their power do not always realise that they are doing it, or why. The reason is usually that they are struggling in their role. If you find yourself slipping towards this, do something about it! Think about what is making you feel like this and identify what areas you want to improve or develop. Now go and find out how you can get the support or training you want and go and ask for it. Learn to be comfortable with your power, both “position” and “personal” and you will be pleasantly surprised what you can achieve as a leader!