Have you ever wondered by people climb over each other in their attempts to be the boss? Are they after the power? Are they after the influence? Are they after the money? According to Cislak and colleagues, people seek top positions not to gain influence over people but to satisfy their need for personal control. The next time you see your boss – whether the manager of your football team or the director of the company you work for – it might be worth thinking about their need for control.
So how much control do they need? One of the usual issues with those in charge of us is their apparent need to micromanage. This is looking over your shoulder at every move, each decision, and the outcomes. What do we mean by perceptions of power and personal control? Perceptions of power are as you might expect – influence over others; however, personal control is influence over one’s life. Power is helpful and unhelpful. Power corrupts, but it also holds benefits. The trouble with power is that it is difficult to take another person’s perspective; power undermines compassion and the willingness to maintain close relationships. With more power comes more cynicism. Powerful people seem to undervalue and objectivity others.
Power also benefits us all because, mostly, groups follow leaders and leaders can coordinate gains for all. Power helps us to get things done, reduce procrastination and increase creativity. We look to coaches and managers to lead football clubs, rugby clubs, and most high-profile organisations. Be it a man or a woman, we lean on them to lead us. But what is going on with the person who gets the job? We can hold power over others, but perhaps more accurately, we can move our lives forward in a personally controllable way. The next time you look at your boss, you might think more about personal control than power over people.
What does the research say about power over people and personal control? Those who hold power positions are egocentric, not compassionate, overconfident, unrealistically self-assured and like to ignore others. It doesn’t stop there either. Powerful people stereotype others, treat others instrumentally and undervalue the performance of their subordinates. Most bullying occurs in organisations with the bully in a higher position than their victims. It seems like a damning case, but there are exceptions too.
We need to see the motives of some of those people in power. It might well be the chance to work with others to gain personal control over one’s life while helping others to meet their goals. Power can satisfy this need to have control over one’s life. So it seems possible to have people in positions of power yet not worn by the anti-social effects of power so clear to see in so many organisations. The challenge here is that most people in positions of power will not know whether they wish to have power over others or personal control. Maybe a little self-awareness and exploration could help anyone in a position of power to check in with themselves and see what is working and what is hurting.
Cislak, A., Cichocka, A., Wojcik, A., & Frankowska, N. (2018). Power corrupts, but control does not: What stands behind the effects of holding high positions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(6), 944–957. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218757456
You may not control all the events that happen to you but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Letter to My Daughter (2008) Maya Angelou, American writer (1928–2014). In Owen, James; Times Books. The Times Great Quotations: Famous quotes to inform, motivate and inspire . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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