Col22_PowerTripMy whole life I’ve been told, upon first impression, I’m rather intimidating. My whole life, I’ve found this phenomenon rather curious. No, I’m not looking for a good ego-stroking here. Rather, I guess you could say I just find it difficult to come to grips with the notion of being intimidated by another person, in general. We all are after all “the same underneath our skin.”

Given this view, I’m sure you can appreciate I’ve found myself in conflict with authority figures on more than one occasion. But again don’t get me wrong, my feelings do not derive even slightly from a lack of respect toward others. Call me crazy (or perhaps a communist), but I simply feel everyone, irrespective of their station in life, should be treated as you would want to be treated yourself. Further, it is of my humble opinion that a person’s character is not defined simply by the work they do or the position(s) they hold, but instead the kind of life they choose to lead.

This preface brings me to today’s topic at hand: that of power, its uses and abuses, and the psychology behind it. But first I’d like to share with you yet another wonderful anecdote of this melodrama I call my life:

A few months ago, I was doing some subcontracted work for a web/graphic design firm. Despite being computer savvy and having a strong background in both domains, I was relegated to solely handling their administrative paperwork and minor site updates, such as: blog writing (perhaps because I was the only female on the team). I didn’t complain however as I was relatively happy within the work environment and appreciated the supplementary income.

Right from the get-go though, my boss, who was considerably less qualified/educated than me, younger than me and quite evidently the coddled child of a well-off family, took every opportunity to attempt to shoot me down. Initially, I wasn’t sure if he was just kidding around, but I guess you could say I got my answer when I was relieved of my position for merely sticking up for myself.

In front of my fellow coworkers, my boss exclaimed outright that if I were to design a particular item, “no offense, but it would look like shit.” When I corrected him by stating “actually I’m trained in that software and regularly use it for other clients”, I was immediately pulled out into the hallway and told that this was my “final warning” for “having an arrogant attitude.”

I pointed out first and foremost that I had not been given any prior warnings so I found his statement rather confusing (which for certain only pissed him off more!). Secondly, I made it clear I didn’t feel defending myself when I’ve been called out and embarrassed in front of the rest of the staff constituted an “attitude problem.” His response and I quote was, “I said, ‘no offense’.”

Now in this particular instance, it’s difficult to conclude whether my boss had it in for me because
a) he was sexist

b) he was a spoiled brat who believed the world should revolve around him

c) he felt threatened by me or

d) perhaps a combination of all of the above.

Irrespective of this, one thing is for certain: his conduct toward me was unquestionably motivated by feelings of insecurity, inferiority and threat; something that is evident by the fact I was fired for failing to “buy into”/challenging his conception of himself as an authority/powerful figure (and what that power entailed).

In his defense however, perhaps his persuasion of what constitutes appropriate leadership was/is derived from modern society’s countless examples of corporate and political leaders who rely heavily on intimidation tactics/fear/bullying to win support from the general population and who constantly abuse their power, yet seem to face little to no consequences. Ironically, many studies on the subject have noted that “relatability” and “likeability” are key factors to gaining the initial support required to rise to power. Once that power is obtained however, as noted by The Economist, “corruption, a hypocritical tendency to hold others to higher standards of conduct than oneself and a sense of entitlement to abuse the systems in which one lives or works,” tend to reign supreme.

So why then do so many of us lust after it?

Evolutionary psychology would suggest that our desire for power stems from our natural instinct to protect and prolong our own kin. By seeking out and maintaining positions of power, we are in a better position to provide for our loved ones and therefore continue the “survival” of our “species”. As German philosopher Nietzsche explains, all life forms are constantly in battle to inflict their wills upon others, as doing so allows for growth, self-preservation, domination and upward mobility.

Power, in psychological terms, is defined as “the ability to enact your will or influence onto others.” According to Dr. Christopher Heffner, there are five types of power one can possess:

  • Coercive: the power to punish
  • Reward: the power to acknowledge/ recompense
  • Legitimate: power granted by some external authority
  • Expert: power that results from experience or education
  • Referent: power derived from respect or admiration; power attributed through idolization

While power was assigned to our primitive ancestors based on tangible attributes that would clearly benefit the group against external threats (ie: physical strength, size, speed, agility and aggression), in today’s world, power is oftentimes acquired through much more superficial demonstrations of charisma or attractiveness. For example, the US’ current President has proven that being a “good talker” can go a long way… which brings me to my next and final point: the power in words.

French social theorist Foucault alleged that power in society originates through discourse (ie: the discussion of knowledge) as words allow us to conceptualize ideas, which then become beliefs, and in turn lead to actions based on those beliefs. Therefore, power resides with those who ultimately control the public discourse (ie: the media, the educational system, politicians, stakeholders etc).

The debate about power: who has it, who should have it, what it constitutes and more, could go on indefinitely. I’d like to leave it for today with two final comments:

  • Psychological maturity is knowing when to pick your battles and setting standards in terms of what you will and will not tolerate from others. Yes, I could’ve kept my mouth shut when my boss made that final dig at me, but is my integrity worth sacrificing for an hourly wage? I think not.
  • On the other side of the equation, psychological maturity is also acknowledging that ALL people (and ALL living things for that matter) deserve to be treated respectfully. Believing that you’re superior to others because you happen to be from a certain tax bracket or because you possess certain traits is extremely egocentric. Psychologically mature individuals recognize that each and every one of us has something unique to offer this world. Difference should never been defined in oppositional terms.