Are You Subject to Power Plays? 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 135
Issue 135, November 16, 2023
As mindful observers of today’s national and global discourse, we would be among the first to remind you that we are all both a witness and a victim to power positioning among politicians, world leaders, global business moguls, and everyday bullies. And as is often the case, when bad behavior is prevalent on the world stage, it tends to trickle down to the local level in organizations, relationships, families, and institutions. It is as though individuals have permission to mimic bad behavior emulating once well-respected public personalities.
With this in mind, we are going to review a phenomenon that often occurs within dysfunctional organizations. We wrote extensively about power positioning in The Truth About Transformation and are updating our findings lurking in the shadow of global events.
For starters, let’s define exactly what we mean by power positioning. Positional power is the type of power you have when you have a specific rank or title in an organization. It is usually expressed by assuming legitimate power, which is the institutionalized power to act in an organization. There are five commonly accepted sources of power positioning: legitimate, expert, referent, coercive and reward.
So far, maybe so good. But power positioning can be one of the most toxic behaviors to derail any organization, for any of the five sources. The most frequent abuse of positional power is to use it as coercive with the ability to punish, abuse, disrespect or demoralize someone else. This becomes essentially an abuse of power to take unjust advantage of individuals, organizations, or governments, as defined by The US Department of Justice.
Psychology Today reports, “For centuries, philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists have struggled to answer ethical questions regarding the use and misuse of power.” When it comes to negative power positioning, “pejorative terms such as harsh, exploitive, fascist, sadistic, and Machiavellian have been used to describe the ways power and influence have been exercised.” When negative or coercive power positioning is used in the workplace, it is often based on passive aggression, “manifested in behaviors indicating weakness, incompetence, and self-destructive tendencies that manipulate others in the interpersonal world by arousing their feelings of fear, guilt, and anger.”
Medium adds that overt negative power is characterized by aggressive tendencies and is exercised through the use of domination, coercion, or force to control others. It can be manifested within a relationship or become a significant part of a political or social movement. And chances are it can often backfire because behaving with a false sense of control and power requires someone on the receiving end who buys into a submissive role. And if you don’t buy it, coercive power then escalates to try to maintain control. Eleanor Roosevelt had something to say about all this: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Or in more modern terms, no one can take away your personal power; only you can make yourself feel disempowered.
Abuse of Power
We do not intend to be obsessed with the negative aspects of power positioning, but it is so reckless and nearly ubiquitous today in the news, social media and with overly aggressive business leaders, we feel it needs to be addressed.
Think about what happens in an organization when power is misused. A common experience is in team meetings, one-on-one interactions, with boards, or in other situations where stakeholders of all types have hidden agendas. Or how about business situations when leaders or managers have subversive goals to undermine others? Personal power takes many shapes and can result in manipulation, come with consequences to others or lead to negative outcomes.
We typically defer to others depending on where we believe our “rank” and “position” fall in a relationship structure. On the one hand, if we defer and provide power to others, we can sit back and not worry about criticism or failure. As children (of any age) we take a deferential position to parents, giving them positional power to act as a director, caretaker, and provider. In our partner relationships, we may vary in power positions depending on the situation or area of personal responsibility. For example, we may defer to our partner to pay bills or give them the power position to ensure protection. In our professional lives, we manifest similar position switching when we believe we need to take orders or defer to a superior, or when we take leadership responsibility if something goes wrong, or something becomes a success.
So, back in the office, if you sit back in a team meeting or even at a community or family function and observe those around you, you may be able to notice how power shifts among those who seek to take it and those who deflect it away from themselves. Without the knowledge and awareness of how we subconsciously take or defer power positions, we may draw false conclusions about why an individual always raises his or her hand to volunteer. In truth, these behaviors may reflect the desire for a higher-level role and demonstrate capability and dominance. Others may sit tucked into the corner of the table with their attention glued to their laptops or phone screens, seemingly absorbed in reviewing emails or something else that they think is a higher priority than what is currently being discussed. We rationalize that the absorbed quiet person isn’t Type A and is avoiding their turn to participate.
In both cases, it may be that each wants to observe the group dynamics and wait to take a power position when the time is right. Or, they may have no aspiration for power. The lesson here is not to make first-impression assumptions. Power plays are complex and do not necessarily follow logical patterns.
What may cause shock or awe is that those exercising power or those waiting for the opportunity to exercise power are always assessing the situation, looking for the right time and basically premeditating manipulation of those around them. Understanding that level of control, when you look around the table or the grid of faces in a virtual meeting, you may see people differently — for who they really are or aspire to be. Remember, power positioning humans seek to sway others to their own beliefs and values, manipulate a situation or dominate a discussion with the aim of exerting power. Power positioning requires vigilance, awareness, and appropriate responses to defuse any potential negative events.
From a positive perspective, positional power gives you the authority to exert influence to impact other people’s behaviors, states BetterUp. Personal power positioning is slightly different from positional power. It is generally accepted as a person’s expertise, knowledge, and skills. Personal power can also reflect one’s better self and be a trait that can inspire others to reach their highest potential. It is often laced with the goal of self-mastery of competence, service, and vision.
Personal power can win the hearts and minds of people, capturing their imaginations and tapping into their personal resources and resolve. Personal power isn’t merely outcome-driven, it motivates a workforce to transcend to personal and professional heights and go the extra mile to become more than they imagined. This is personal power at its best and when used for good, inspires people. Who wouldn’t want to follow this type of leader?
When times are tough, stakeholders want leaders and managers who demonstrate positive personal power laced with empathy. Positional power is given to individuals who have authority based on their position in an organization’s structure and hierarchy. It is given to individuals by others, often to founders or leaders of an organization.
At 2040, we advocate the positive use of positional power and mindful role modeling to bring out the potential and possibility of a healthy, functional workforce. Having said that, the increasingly asymmetrical quality of our national discourse begs for personal and positional power that inspires, heals, listens to, and emphasizes with others. Not to be naïve but we need a reboot. A way to take a pause and start out on a better foot. Here’s a quote from T.S. Eliot that frames the need for toning down the fractious rhetoric, ““We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate when the last of earth left to discover is that which was the beginning.”
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.