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On a Power Trip? You May Find Yourself Flying Solo

By Deb Calvert (1400 words)
Posted in Management on November 19, 2013

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As an eighth grader, I really struggled with George Orwell's "Animal Farm." The central theme – absolute power corrupts absolutely – didn't resonate with me. Miss Lally tried, but what she described was too far removed from my own limited experiences.

Lately, though, I've been replaying those words. I'm recognizing this theme in real life. I'm keenly aware of power plays and abuses of power, more mindful of how harmful they can be as I see them affecting people I've worked with and cared about.

The abuses of power I've observed this month include three techniques I've named this way − Ivory Tower Insulation, Big Shot Bullying and Marginalize and Ignore.

All three techniques are manipulative and counter-productive. When I observe these behaviors in senior managers and ask them what's happening, they offer these justifications:


  1. My job is to deliver results. I’ve got to do whatever it takes and I'm not here to win a popularity contest.


  2. I don't have time.


  3. Sometimes you have to push people's buttons to get them motivated.


  4. I've tried everything else.


  5. That's just the way we do things here.


What's consistent in these responses is that senior managers who choose these behaviors are frustrated and time-pressed. They've resorted to these techniques because they don't have the time or tools to react differently. What's more, these power tactics have probably worked for them (or for others they've observed), at least in the short term.

Here's the problem. These power plays are dangerous and destructive. They damage the credibility of the senior manager who indulges in them. They hurt direct reports and others who are, in some way, being punished. And these tactics disrupt team harmony, reduce productivity and get in the way of goal attainment.

Check yourself as you read these descriptions of the power abuses I've recently observed.


3 Common Abuses of Power Made By Senior Managers

The Ivory Tower Insulation

In recent political news, a debate has raged about whether President Obama knew that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been subjected to NSA tracking for over a decade.

The White House issued statements that Obama did not know. The implication was that he was, therefore, blameless.

The same rationalization has been made by many a senior manager who wraps himself or herself in the insulation of an ivory tower.

This is a power play. The role of the senior manager is not supposed to be so removed from the action that an "ignorance is bliss" excuse stands.  Any senior manager who doesn't know what's going on has failed to stay in touch with the people who would've shared concerns. Being inaccessible isn't an acceptable excuse for dodging responsibility.

As soon as you hear yourself saying "I didn't know," you need to follow up with "now that I do know, I will act on this." Additionally, you need to figure out why you didn't know so you can prevent a future lapse in engagement.

Big Shot Bullying

At what job level does a person get the right to treat others as second-class? What job title entitles you to intimidate others into giving you a wide berth and an unhealthy respect that stems from fear that you'll rob them of their lunch money (metaphorically)  and their self-esteem (literally)?

Workplace bullying is no different from schoolyard bullying. It is always a power play when one person threatens another in order to feel or look superior. Forcing someone to say "uncle" or to bend to your will just for the sake of demonstrating your dominance ultimately makes you look petty and weak.

Sometimes, bullying is subtle. A look alone will speak volumes with a disapproving glare, a certain word choice, a veiled threat or a reminder of the past mistake. What qualifies a behavior as bullying is that it is intended to make the recipient feel small and powerless.

People who use bullying in some situations can often be quite charming, too. This demonstrates that bullying is a choice.  Targeting those you can dominate and charming those you cannot isn't sustainable. Eventually, people will catch on and your charm will no longer work when your other side has been revealed.

Marginalize and Ignore

One way to "put people in their place" (a senior manager actually said that to me just last week!) is to make them sweat. It's a power play when you withhold attention and ignore others' requests for your time or feedback. When you don't explain the cold shoulder you're giving, imaginations run wild.

And that's exactly what you're after, isn't it? Ignoring people signals you are important and they are not. Keeping them guessing about what you're thinking, what they've done to offend you and how to get back in your good graces is supposed to make them sorry for upsetting you. More often, it just makes people feel marginalized and manipulated, seeing your unprofessionalism as immature.

I liken it to the neighborhood club I wasn't invited into in the first grade, the one formed by friends on the block who were mad at me when I didn't share my role of butterscotch Lifesavers on the school bus one day. They froze me out for about a week, and I was heartbroken. Then I started playing with a new neighbor, and their power to affect me was diminished. Without the power that game lost its appeal.

Unlike children, employees can't go pick someone else to play with unless they want to change jobs. You know this and use it against them to wield your petty power. Here's the thing, though, you may be forgetting. This particular game isn't forever. The time will come when you need to reopen the lines of communication. But you've permanently planted a seed of resentment and suspicion. You changed the relationship with this employee, and you've lost his or her respect.

If you think your position, title or authority requires you to make a power play like these, think again. You are giving away your power, displaying poor self-control and limiting the effectiveness of others and of yourself. As you work to disempower other people, you're actually becoming powerless.

Real power comes from enabling and ennobling others, not from competing with them or holding them back.



{#/pub/images/DebCalvertNew.jpg}Written by Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions-Author of the DISCOVER Questions book series, Deb has worked as a sales productivity specialist and sales researcher since 2000. She is certified as a Master Sales Coach, Master Trainer, and host of CONNECT! an online radio show for selling professionals where listeners ignite their selling power in just an hour. Deb helps companies to boost productivity through people development. This work includes leadership program design and facilitation, strategic planning with executive teams, team effectiveness work, and performance management program design. 


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Comments (2)

be nice posted on: December 7, 2013

Great article. The points are all very valid, however, it doesn't do much for offering how to fix these issues. Pointing out there is bullying, and abuse of power in the work place isn't new. In some fashion these acts have been around since humans have been in groups. Those who abuse power got power by these abuses in most cases, changing that mindset isn't as easy as pointing out the issue. In my opinion it takes a great leader at the top to see it, and start pointing it and acting to correct it. I think sometimes 360 sessions are of great value, but again it has to be directed and followed through from the top. Someone has to point it out, present facts and examples, and it has to be someone with influence. Those willing to change will change, those who aren't shouldn't remain in a management position. But again in my opinion this has to be a Sr. Management directive, and hopefully they aren't the ones with the issue!

JOHN GRANT posted on: February 27, 2017

I have honestly never read such overwhelmingly good content like this. I agree with your points and your ideas. This info is really great. Thanks.

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