Power – the person or position?

Bob Sutton, in his blog post 12 Things Good Bosses Believe, emphasizes how the power of a role inevitably creates blind spots. Number 1 on his list:

I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it’s like to work for me

And he concludes with Number 12:

Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.

I like how he says it and shows it so bluntly: power corrupts.

But it is not the power of the role alone. It is the fit between the power of the person and the power of the role. Think of it like clothing. The role or position is a piece of clothing, but the body who wears it has a lot to do with how it fits, to stretch an analogy just a bit.

Poor use of power most often stems from a dissonance between the personal power of the one in the role and the power of the role itself. Hannah Arendt famously called this “moral authority.” Here’s the formula: unless the person in the role has enough personal power or moral authority to match the power of the role, he tends to over use the role to compensate that lack. A classic example is the anxious, nerdy or timid boss who uses his role to cover up insecurities. In a TV comedy like The Office it’s annoying and funny. But when a teacher, hurt by a student’s criticism, gets revenge by publicly shaming him, or a competitive, insecure boss demeans and humiliates employees it’s an abuse of power.

We all grow up in a context of power, and it seems that the social status and power dynamics of our early years are formative; they can often “trump” the status and power accumulated later. Many people who grew up overweight say that even after they lost weight, they still look in the mirror and see a fat person. I think there’s a parallel with status and power. Growing up poor, or having low status because of birth order, class rank, size, etc., tends to stick, coloring any social status or power that is gained later. Same with high status. If someone grew up in privilege, even if she drops to a lower socio-economic class or position in an organization, she could still have a higher status identity, evident in a sense of ease or entitlement in negotiating for what she wants.

Here are some of the more common difficulties I’ve seen when there is a mismatch between role and person, and what to watch out for:

1. Underestimating your own power and overestimating the others’. If you feel one-down or low rank, it’s easy to underestimate your power, and think the other one has more power. So you use too much fire power. But this  escalates interactions into conflict by assuming you are the weaker one. A good rule of thumb for conflict is: always overestimate your power, and underestimate that of your opponent.
2. Using the role to hide insecurities. I frequently hear from people who have high rank in organizations that they secretly feel fraudulent. Any moment now they’ll be found out. People who have  high social rank but feel low rank or fraudulent  can hide their insecurities, avoiding asking for help when needed, even as things spiral out of control. Sometimes people hide behind the role, even when inappropriate, eg., staying in their social role even in personal or intimate situations. Like the “great and powerful” wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz they frantically operate the levers of the machine to hide their stress, uncertainty and human fallibilities.

3. Making power the bad guy. It’s easy to just conclude, well, all power is bad, and if I don’t act like a  boss, or  be too authoritative, I’ll avoid being the jerk or bully of my childhood. Having bad experiences with power, it’s easy to become anti-power, even as we climb up the status ladder. We prefer to be “pals,” or partners, opting for a supportive, not authoritative style. But minimizing power can have unintended harmful consequences because when power is hidden, we cannot be trusted; one minute we’re the friend, but then suddenly, we have to fire someone. And there is a rank difference: the one in power decides on the rules of the game. We might be friends, but I have the power to change that into boss when I need to. Better to learn how to use power well, than just pretend it’s not there.

Where else do you see the mismatch in your experience?

3 Responses so far.

  1. Elizabeth Reuthe says:

    Julie, I really love this concept of power as clothing – a cloak (like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak) or a coat of many colors (like Joseph’s). So many of my staff and later clients over the years have had the problems you mention in this blog: either not recognizing their power and therefore unknowingly abusing it, not being comfortable with their power wanting to be friends with their staff, or not being big enough for their power (the office. I love the notion of “a context of power..that the social status and power dynamics of our early years are formative (that) can often “trump” the status and power accumulated later.” This is something that I personally struggled with and sometimes still do today;not realizing the impact that even a stray comment can have on a stranger let alone a client, employee, loved one or neighbor. Just recently I have had a couple of examples of former employees telling me about comments that I made to them years before and the impact that they had on them. They were all positive comments that I frankly did not remember, but they made me think about the possibility of comments that may have impacted others in a less positive way. How many of those were there?
    The February 2011 Scientific American article about new research that confirms (an old once debunked notion)that one’s mother tongue does mold the one thinks about many aspects of the world, including space and time…makes me wonder about the impact of language on our notion of power and how and where we fit in the world….and how we acquire it and or let go of old notions of who we really are and how we fit here in this reality.
    thank you for this thoughtful blog entry. Elizabeth Reuthe

    • juliediamond says:

      Thank you Elizabeth, for your thoughtful and thought provoking comment. I know the feeling of being told I made a positive impact, and knowing full well, that the converse must also be true, even if we don’t hear it as often.

  2. nina says:

    There is a disconnect that people in positions which demand respect for their position’s power, but do not command respect for their person/power; which is often the case when a person oversteps the power of their position and take the lack of respect for their use of their position’s power as a personal slight (which it is), but then react by further abusing their power

    instead of re-thinking what they’ve done and how their personal insecurities have tainted the situation.

    I’ve worked with people who are obsessed with the ranks of position and they tend to be the ones who are insecure people

    people who are secure in their power and of their position, are not angered when challenged or questioned, they can simply respond with explainations or decisions

    but it’s the insecure ones who have to make it personal and lash out at those of us who are comfortable and secure enough, lack lacking in position power, to say, the emperor has no clothes

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