Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Personal Power

After a short hiatus, ‘Reading Bumps and Entrails’ is back. Watch this space for fortnightly blogs about psychology, leadership, organisations and the odd foray into the fanciful.

According to Kerry O’Brien, Paul Keating (former Prime Minister of Australia) once famously said, ‘What’s the use of having power if you don’t use it?’

Recently, I’ve noticed, in my workshops, that people can get a bit squeamish when the issue of power comes up. Like eccentric Uncle Sirius, it is talked about in hushed tones: even a little embarrassment and perhaps best avoided. However, like Uncle Sirius, we know it’s there and exerting an influence on everything we do. And we might even use it ourselves, although we might not call it power.

I’d like to invite power into the room. An agenda item for discussion.

Power is a major psychological need. We all need power but to a varying degree. This is easy to test out. If you ask a room full of people whether or not they like to be micromanaged or constantly told what to do, the reaction is a resounding ‘No’. It makes sense. We like to have power over our personal circumstances. We like to control things that are important to us and that have an impact on our personal lives.

At the end of an invisible spectrum, there are those who have an almost pathological need for lots of power. We all sit somewhere on a need for power continuum. We are all different in the extent of our need.

For me, as an unreconstructed Darwinist, the need for power is immediately explicable. Power is essential to making sure our genes are both replicated and survive. How we obtain and exercise that power is a completely different issue, affected by many psychological factors that, I think, are fascinating to explore. I’m particularly interested in the pathological use of power but that’s another blog perhaps, at another time.

Once, in my dim past, I was involved in a collaborative project between a university at which I was working and the that State’s Department of Health. My co-director from health was on secondment from a job in which had been leading a large number of staff and an enormous research budget. There was just the two of us, initially, and ended up with a small staff of about thirteen. I once asked him if he missed the power that he had had in his previous role. He replied that, ‘If I need power then I’ll go and get it.’ This was a brilliant and thought provoking response that has stayed with me for well over 20 years.

Power is something we can use or relinquish, depending on circumstances. We enable people by using our power. We’ve all heard about leading from the rear, providing an environment in when people can exert their own power. As I mentioned above, some people don’t want very much power-just enough to be in control of their immediate circumstances. We can also use power to drive decisions about issues, perhaps highly value laden, that are difficult or uncomfortable.

Clearly, power can be negative. Our drive towards achieving our goals can lead us to diminish the power of others. This might affect personal relationships, a team, or a whole organisation. It can lead to poor decision-making and poor choices. It can destroy rather than build.

To the point of this discussion. I think we need to talk about power more. We need to be able to openly talk about how power is being used well and when it is being used poorly. I’d like to see conversations about power and how it is being used in relationships, teams and organisations as normal. Each of us needs to think about, and get feedback about, our own use of power. We need to learn how to use it well rather than badly.

This, rather than waiting for a complaint that ends up in court, relationship breakdown, team ineffectiveness and organisational distress.

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