Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Power in the Workplace—Hate the Game, Not the Ball

Today I read an article titled "The 7 Types of Power That Shape the Workplace," inspired by the book What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues, by Nicole Lipkin, and to be honest, it was a bit of a disappointment. The reason is, the article just barely scratched the surface of what power is, how it’s used and misused, and why people are so attracted to it. (I guess I’ll need to read the book, huh?)

Power in the workplace is a topic that interests me greatly. You can’t advance one iota in the workplace without becoming keenly aware of power differentials and how power is used as both a force for good and harm. I’m of the  opinion that desiring power is not in and of itself bad. I've always sought power in my jobs. Why? Because with power you can actually make an impact and get stuff done. Without it, you can’t.

And it does no good to pound your fists against your chest while crying out against the unfairness of it all, as I've seen some younger workers do (metaphorically speaking, that is) because somebody had more power than they and had the authority to expect certain things. 

(I once had an employee tell me she didn't understand why she had to be the one to proactively keep her manager in the loop, when if her manager wanted to know something the manager could just ask. Yes dear. But your manager has the power, and she requested that you proactively keep her informed, okay?)

That said, power must be used responsibly. Sadly, however, many of us don’t have the maturity or the character to do that, I’m afraid. The saying “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a wise saying, indeed. 

I know what I’m talking about. When I was in the fourth grade, I was removed from my post as Line Monitor (and stripped of my shiny badge, too) for bossing around the first graders (“Get back in line, you!”). I’d gotten a taste of the Capital P, and it was some heady stuff, man.

Workplace bullying is all about power. Despite what some experts will claim, I maintain that some targets have what Lipkin calls “referent power,” defined as “the ability to convey a sense of personal acceptance or approval. [Referent power] is held by people with charisma, integrity, and other positive qualities,” which I  believe their bullies envy. I always urge targets of bullying to remember this, because their bullies are pulling out all the stops to make the targets feel like crap, as though they’re deficient somehow, when the opposite is usually closer to the truth.

In Why Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely, Dr. Robert Aziz writes a very, well … powerful article about power and its debasing characteristics. In the piece, Dr. Aziz also makes an excellent point that I know for a fact to be true about the manager bullies I’ve encountered—they’re just not very competent. Not as managers, anyway. And that incompetence leads to bad management that often includes abuse of power, absent actual malice. 

(Not that this is a complete comfort to the poor souls toiling under these managers, but it helps a little to understand. As they say, knowledge is power, right?)

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