Mistakes about the sources
of power can lead to abuses
People can attain power from the positions that they hold and from their own personalities and abilities.
Powerful positions include company managers, judges, politicians, policemen and military officers. These people have certain legitimate rights to direct the behavior of others given their high-status positions. They can dispense rewards if people follow their directives. At times, they can coerce people into behaving, as when judges take away the license of a person driving under the influence of alcohol.
Power also resides in the qualities of individuals. Some people have expertise in certain areas and so receive positive evaluations from others. When these experts make suggestions about how others should behave, people pay attention out of respect for their knowledge.
People can also obtain power because of their attractive personalities. Known as referent power, some people are influential because they represent the qualities that good leaders and high-status individuals should have. Others refer to them when thinking about good leadership. These others want to emulate the leaders should they ever enter the ranks of powerholders.
The positive side of power is that leaders can use their influence to serve others and to offer improvements to their companies, communities, and churches. The negative side of power is that it can be intoxicating and people can abuse their status. Especially when people acquire power quickly, they often have a number of predictable reactions that can cause problems.
Powerful people sometimes feel that they are better than others. These powerful people become so confident in themselves that they don't ask for the suggestions of co-workers and subordinates. They take credit for the work of subordinates and do not offer public praise to hard-working employees. They sometimes think that this credit-taking is justified because of their inflated view that they created the conditions that allowed subordinates to thrive.
Powerful people sometimes make the mistake of derogating the work of subordinates and do not give them constructive suggestions about how to improve their work.
People can fall prey to these abuses of their status if they do not think carefully about the reasons for their power.
People may have power because of their positions and titles, but they may erroneously feel that they have power because of their personal qualities.
Powerful people often receive deference from others. Drivers slow down when they see police cars. Employees appear to listen more carefully when their bosses are talking than when co-workers are making suggestions.
The drivers and employees do not always think that the police and bosses deserve their power because of their personal qualities. Rather, they are deferent because they feel that the police and bosses have legitimacy because of their positions.
Some people, however, attribute the deference they receive to themselves, not their positions. They feel that they are receiving respect because of their desirable personal qualities, not their titles.
Such people become especially intoxicated with power and make nuisances out of themselves.
How can the negative effects of power be lessened? Much like dealing with any negative behaviors that becomes habitual, people must want to change. They must make targets of their negative behaviors and must avoid performing them.
Overweight people know that they must push themselves away from the dinner table before desert to avoid more calories than their diets allow.
Similarly, high-status people must know about the negative aspects of power and must push themselves away from temptations to abuse their positions.
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The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: firstname.lastname@example.org