Leaders Who Abuse Power

Wielding power is an important yet highly delicate aspect of leadership. In the worst cases, power can be abused or avoided and in the best cases, it can be used judiciously and for worthy goals.

But either way, leaders must understand the power they hold. They must understand the positive effects of using it properly and the ill effects when used negatively. If leaders do not come to terms with their own power, organizations and staff may bear the brunt.

Leaders who use their power appropriately can motivate staff, inspire loyalty and commitment and push employees to aspire to greater achievement. In contrast, leaders who abuse their power bring down morale, create turnover, incur grievances and cost the company money in lost productivity. A third dynamic – leaders who avoid the use of the power they are entrusted with – can create confusion, anxiety and a sense of helplessness in staff.

According to researchers Steven Farmer at Wichita State University and Herman Aguinis at University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, leader power is the ability or potential to influence others. It is derived from having something someone else wants or needs. As such, those in subordinate positions are in some form of dependence on another-the supervisor.

Power is vested in a leader at an organization for a variety of reasons, including their experience, expertise, education, business acumen, wisdom or tenure. The leader is considered adept at running the company, department or supervising personnel, to meet organizational goals. And the company confers enough power on the leader to help him or her meet the organization’s goals.

But leaders have different ways of handling their authority, some of them unhealthy for the company and for staff.

Power Abusers

There are two key types of leaders who abuse their power:

• Bully Bosses

The first and most familiar abuse of power comes from the bully boss. This boss uses power and authority to dominate staff, ostensibly to get the job done. The tactics the bully uses range from rude behaviour to sarcasm, yelling, and sometimes physical violence including throwing things and manhandling staff. Under the guise of getting the job done, the bully will intimidate, humiliate and violate staff to the point where people are afraid of him or her and comply with demands to stay out of bullying range. Mistakes are hidden, productivity is low and creativity is quashed in these environments. The bully often uses abusive power tactics to bolster his or her confidence, to experience a sense of being in command or to feel superior to others. The fallout of this abuse of power is higher costs, lowered performance and increased absenteeism, sick time and disability costs.

• Manipulator

The boss who manipulates to meet business objectives is familiar to many. This type uses covert tactics to meet his or her objectives, demonstrated in how he handles information, motivates others and ensures compliance. These bosses will justify any means to meet their ends.

For example, manipulators may make promises of advancement that never materialize. A psychological contract is created in which a staff person is led to believe that after several years of hard work, the supervisor will assist in a promotion. With that carrot, the boss obtains superior work, long hours and dedication from an ambitious employee. When the time comes for a return on the staff person’s investment, the boss reneges, either having overstepped his bounds (offering something he can’t provide) or failing to provide the staff person with the development necessary to step into the promised position.

The manipulative boss is most interested in getting his immediate needs met and has difficulty taking a long term perspective. By making false promises, the job gets done and done well, but staff suffer. The leader neglects activity that should focus on developing staff for more senior roles. He fails to ready staff through teaching, guiding, mentoring or informing them about what it takes to reach the next level. This is done purposely because he has no intention of keeping the advancement promise.

Those who use their power to manipulate others hide important information and dole it out selectively. They pit staff against each other, take sides and pick favourites. They can be passive aggressive in their approach, ignoring phone calls and requests for information or discrediting others to superiors.

They are sometimes difficult to spot as they can be adept at appearing collegial, caring and concerned about staff welfare. They aren’t that concerned, they abuse power to meet their own ends and the end result is that staff feel used, betrayed and angry.

Power Avoiders

Power avoiders tend to deny they have power. They attempt to insist everyone’s equal in the organization. This is true but only to a point. Everyone deserves respect and fair treatment, but to overlook the fact that the leader can control staff career advancement, salaries, hiring, firing, information and the access to resources is naive. Power avoiders abdicate their roles as leaders. By failing to see, understand and reckon with the existing power differential between themselves and staff, the leader fails to harness the full potential of the role and builds a false reality in the department. This means staff know full well that the boss has power, but must collude with the leader’s denial. This goes well until a staffer actually tries to share power with the “colleague-boss”. More often than not, the boss somehow reminds the staff person that there is a power dynamic and the boss is still in charge.

This dynamic is easily spotted when new supervisors, uncomfortable with their newfound authority, try to be friends with the staff. This usually backfires. Staff end up either with too much influence over daily operations or are reminded that they aren’t in the driver’s seat when their suggestions, initiatives or ideas are shot down.

Powerful Leaders

Powerful leaders recognize they wield power rather than denying that they have it. They use their authority to meet business objectives. They don’t bully to get their way. They inspire, explain and mentor their way to success. Leaders who use their authority appropriately take responsibility for the outcomes they seek and practice a form of “give all the credit, take all the blame” thinking. They are humble. They understand that the contributions of the staff make the organization a success. By “taking the blame”, they ensure that they deal with tough situations as they occur instead of offloading the responsibility onto subordinates.

For example, when dealing with underperforming staff, the leader will tackle the issue directly by offering feedback, listening to the staff person’s thoughts about the observation and working to solve the issue. This may mean added courses, more attention from the leader, a change in the way staff are being developed or finding a new role for the individual. And it may mean letting the person go.

Leaders work with staff to meet objectives through frank and transparent communication, they don’t bully or coerce. They ensure that staff understand why they are being asked to do what they are doing. They deal with issues as they arise and wade, however gently, into difficult conversations when they are needed.

Leaders who understand they are in positions of authority – and that with the authority comes the responsibility not to harm people will be most effective.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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