The Use and Misuse of Managerial Power


Steve Johannsen, Susan Dineen, Kevin Hickman, Bill Mitchell, Zach Blumenfeld, Bryon Johnson, Derrick Van Mell

On April 1, 2020, The Center’s Workgroup #1 (USA) discussed the use and misuse of power. Center Members start meetings by defining terms, so Steve referred to a Harvard Business Review article that cataloged the powers managers have: from one’s knowledge, skills, accomplishments, communication ability and so forth.

But this discussion was about organizational or managerial power, the power to tell other people what to do.

When did you first realize you had power over others as a manager?

Everyone said they learned about power in their very first supervisory job (one was a shift leader at MacDonald’s). Conscientious first-time managers immediately sense how easy it is to be seduced by power and find it stressful. That discomfort should prod us to examine it. No one reported their bosses had a heart-to-heart conversation about power. It was bumpy, particularly for those of us with older employees.

One Workgroup member said he became more aware of the risks of power during a phase of rapid growth, when the organization was under stress and lots of big decisions needed to be made.

How do you know if someone has misused their organizational power?

Workgroup members had a range of experiences, from dealing with bosses who were outright bullies to their more subtle, passive aggressive behaviors. They agreed it’s easy to inadvertently misuse power, to upset and frighten employees in what you say or even in how you say it.

The goal is not to have to assert one’s organizational authority, but to lead people—including oneself—to the best decision for everyone. Layoffs are the ultimate challenge to the appropriate use of power: needing to hurt some people to protect many people.

What would you tell a new manager about power?

First, talk about power directly. Tell them they’ve been entrusted with power to help others, not themselves. Using power in a moral way takes maturity and self-awareness. That said, they need to know they’re expected to make decisions in the best interests of the organization, which is why it’s best to avoid personal relationships with employees.

It takes work, time and self-discipline to earn people’s respect— communicate to build trust and make sure everyone’s clear on what’s expected of them, so you won’t need to assert your power. It takes work to be humble, so make a point to give credit to others: celebrate other people’s success as often as you can. But ultimately, remember the Golden Rule.

Relevant Terms

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