Dealing with the power-hungry at work

Whenever I visit workplaces, it seems that the type of manager or team member who gives their co-workers the most grief are those with a very strong need for power. There is nothing wrong with having a very strong need for control, respect and achievement. In fact our high achievers tend to have a very strong psychological need for power.

But it is the choices such individuals make to meet this need that can be frustrating and hurtful to others. Perhaps they speak disrespectfully to others, insist on having things their way, or put other people and their opinions down. In effect they use their power - whether this comes from their authority, personality, verbal skills, or influence over others - to walk over the needs of others.

Assuming you are not working with a psychopath, just how can you work a little easier with such individuals? Firstly, such people tend to be highly sensitive to criticism, but they soak up positive feedback. Provided you can do so genuinely, catch them behaving in ways you like and reinforce this in some way. But it is important that what you say is not interpreted as a criticism. Thanking them for treating you like a human being that day is probably not a good idea. But you could at least respond more positively to them when they are respectful.

People with a strong need for power also tend to like their ideas and opinions being sought out. Some clever team members can even help their manager to think that a change that they want to see was actually their manager's idea. As someone with a fairly strong need for personal power myself, I confess I have not always been good at seeking out other people's opinions.

I remember one woman I worked with who I asked to do a particular task at work. Over time, when she continued to not do what I had asked, I hopped on my high horse, reminding her who her manager was. The trouble with this approach was that she hopped on a much higher horse of high emotion and superior verbal skills. For the next several months, we had a very difficult working relationship. I would have been much better to say, "We have this problem at work, what are your ideas on what needs to be done about it."

People with a strong need for power also like control - being in charge. Perhaps I would have been better putting that team member in charge of solving that particular problem. I recently heard a story of a manager who had a resistant, uncooperative and undermining team member. This manager correctly identified this person's need for power and actually promoted him, giving him authority over a department at work. Within weeks, this person's difficult behaviour largely disappeared and, through this new experience, he gained greater compassion for his manager.

Of course, if you are going to give such people control, this is a calculated risk. You are hoping by considering their needs they will also reciprocate and not use this new power in a negative way. Where it is not an option to give greater control to those individuals, at least give them choice over how they do their work, even if it is from a limited range of options.

So what if you do have a psychopath at work and they continue using their power for evil? This is when other options need to be explored. Typically, management will lay down clear expectations about how they are to speak to people. But if change does not occur, they need to be supported in moving to a role that plays to their strengths, but minimizes their weaknesses. Sometimes this role is outside of their current workplace. 


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