Uses and Abuses of Personal Power

Success in life is largely determined by choosing how to use our personal power, and being aware of how others use theirs. If others can intimidate or instill a profound regard, this quickly tips the scales in their favor and gives them an advantage. By analyzing your interpersonal relations more closely, you can adjust the balance of power and play to your own strengths.

Lofty titles and positions can be granted by others but, like dominance in the marketplace, they need to be earned for maximal effectiveness. Prestigious titles confer legitimate powers and are easiest for people to recognize, understand and react to. However, people using other forms of power against you will constantly erode the legitimacy of established power dynamics. Let’s review the many forms that power can take in our lives.

Operant Conditioning

The ability to reward others can be as simple as praising another person or granting them privilege. In an office setting, the act of forgiveness, making recommendations to higher-ups, or the ability to control schedules or vacation times can be powerful. Reward power reaches its limitations when the other person becomes complacent and constantly expects more; suddenly, a privilege becomes (in their mind) an entitlement. You may run out of rewards to bestow, or someone else may reward more. This is especially true in granting raises.

The opposite of reward power is coercive power—influencing others through threat, or perceived threat, of punishment. While this may sound like a very demeaning way to wield power, it is only derogatory when abused. Used justly, coercive power helps to maintain the status quo.

A good example is a well-written personnel and department manual that spells out the expectations for your employees and the consequences of noncompliance.

The Ultimate Goal

The most commanding form of personal power, reverence, is an awesome respect for a higher-up, or people’s inherent respect for those who display “right” behavior. Character and integrity derive from revering a higher authority in laws, rules, religion or etiquette. Tradition or established procedures lay down a precedent that makes it difficult for others to overturn. Reverence is also expedient, as tradition has no feelings and doesn’t mind taking the blame. This is the framework that establishes respect for parents, religious elders, teachers and doctors.

To develop reverent power, you must successfully project that you have integrity and a consistent set of standard values. Sticking to them can have a profound effect on others. This is your ability to draw a line in the sand that others know you will not cross.

This power, if nurtured, will continue to grow over time. If the leader does not project respect for what is right, their followers will lose respect for the leader. Essentially, if your staff sees you breaking the rules or fudging on what is right, they are more likely to embezzle from you or cut corners themselves.

The Cult of Personality

A few individuals are blessed with charismatic power. This can be a very dangerous form, as we have seen leaders use it to unite the masses in immoral causes. Charisma is gained by sparking the imagination of others and inspiring support and admiration. If you are ever feeling drawn toward someone in business dealings, it is time to take a pause and do a rational reassessment. Situational awareness will prevent you from getting played by staff, vendors and family who jockey for power. Vulnerability to charismatic power can greatly threaten your powers of legitimacy, expertise or knowledge.

A few other forms of power: situational power can be as simple as where you sit at the table or which office you are in. More frequently, it is the power of having alternatives or time in making a decision. Expertise power can be gained over time, while knowledge power comes with continual study.

Take Heed

Combinations of power are the most difficult to overcome. Reverent, charismatic and expertise power can be a very formidable trifecta. When you add legitimate power to these three, it can be used for great good or great evil. Beware: absolute power corrupts absolutely.