It’s a workplace taboo.
The topic of power, is often swept under the office rug. Many eschew the idea that any differences in power, authority and responsibility exist at all. Rather, they prefer the idea that the workplace is democracy, where everyone has equal say and no one opinion, matters more than another.
Unfortunately, this can lead to the abuse of power and power tripping on the part of managers and employees alike.
Power tripping is when people advance their own interests at the expense of the common good. The power tripper benefits personally at the cost of other staff and the organization by taking advantage of the trust placed in them.
For example, if the boss uses the company expense account to fund a family trip to Maui, he is using his position to gain personally. He also may justify his actions, citing how hard he works or the lack of appreciation the organization shows him.
Whether it’s financial gain, perks or an ego boost at another’s expense, power tripping takes a toll. Staff withdraw and disengage when power tripping occurs. They feel disenchanted, angry and, in some cases, copy the behaviour. An everyone- for-themselves-mentality pervades organizations in which abuses of power and trust go unchecked.
And, anyone can be a power tripper. While it seems obvious that managers can power trip easily because they have more control over people’s livelihoods, careers and position in the company, staff can wield power too.
According to researchers, Katherine DeCelles, at the University of Toronto, Scott DeRue, at the University of Michigan, Joshua Margolis, at Harvard Business School and Tara Ceranic, at the University of San Diego, you can feel powerful without being the manager, or in charge. This is because feeling powerful is also an experience.
For example, one worker felt powerful at work because she had a specialized knowledge base. As an IT expert, she used her knowledge and expertise to feel superior to others. As a result, she came across as arrogant, patronizing and condescending when interacting with colleagues. She gained an ego boost at their expense.
The researchers, whose study appeared recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology, observed that workers with a low moral identity tend to power trip more than colleagues with a higher moral identity.
Moral identity refers to the degree to which one’s self concept is tied to demonstrating values such as kindness, fairness, honesty or helpfulness. In the case of the IT worker, she did not identify being kind or helpful as a responsibility when one has a different knowledge base. She was unaware that being more knowledgeable can carry a responsibility to share that knowledge in a useful fashion. Her desire to feel superior was more important than the needs of her colleagues, or the organization, to efficiently tap her expertise.
Power tripping is a difficult behaviour to handle but it can be dealt with. There are four ways to handle the office power tripper:
If you know of stealing or the misuse of company property, it is important to report what you know to your supervisor. You can choose to be anonymous, but letting someone know is important. If it’s the supervisor abusing their position, talk to his or her supervisor.
2.Talk to the Offender
Talking privately with the power tripper can help. For example, the IT expert didn’t realize the effect of her ego boosting behaviour. When a colleague told her that no one wanted to come to ask her a question because of the arrogant response, she changed. It became more important to share her knowledge than feel superior.
3.Check Their Moral Identity
You can ask colleagues to think about how they are behaving to test if they have a high or low moral identity. For example, a sales agent who worked on a team would give leads to his chosen few. When a fellow team member broached the topic, saying the way he referred prospects wasn’t fair, he replied that when she made as much money as he did, he’d listen but until then, she should forget being part of the inner circle. This highlighted how the sales agent’s self-interested behaviour–creating a mini-fiefdom, paid off in a popularity boost.
Knowing that it was a waste of time trying to discuss the issue, freed her up to find her own leads. The team soon fell apart, leaving the power tripping sales agent isolated.
4.Tackle the Issue Organizationally
Discussing how people use power is important. Making staff aware of the tendency to power trip if one isn’t connected to one‘s own values or the company’s creed, is key. Identifying the core values staff espouse and connecting these to the organization’s values and objectives, is important. If there is a discrepancy between what a staff member values and what the company stands for, that discrepancy should be discussed.
So too, is intervening when power tripping occurs. Staff need to know that acting purely in one’s own best interests is antithetical to being part of a team and to working towards common business goals. And, ensuring that managers remain value-based in their conduct and decision making, sets the tone.
It can be as simple as acknowledging that there are power differences and discussing the appropriate use of power to reduce the likelihood that it gets abused.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.