The use and abuse of power at work – Position (3/21)

With many positions (ie roles within structures) comes power. Obvious examples include presidents, prime ministers, chief executives, chairmen, and archbishops. While safeguards may be built in to limit the scope of their power, such people will already be skilled manipulators of their environment before they even assume the top role.

This characteristic of these roles has led them to be stereotyped and subsequently parodied by comedians around the world. This is an old tradition and can be found in works such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Voltaire’s Candide. Monty Python often used this approach taking an authority figure (such as a military officer, the police, judges, Conservative politicians, BBC news announcers, and even God) and exagerating their stereotyped mannerisms to an extreme ultimately spouting complete nonsense. Examples include:

* Police officers, as seen in the Keystone Kops, Inspector Clouseau, Reno 911!, Police Academy, The Thin Blue Line and Carry On Constable.
* Soldiers, as seen in Sgt. Bilko, Carry on Sergeant, Stripes, Blackadder Goes Forth and Il Capitano in the Commedia del Arte.
* Civil servants, as seen in Yes Minister, Carlton Brown of the F.O.[2], The Ministry of Silly Walks and Spin City.
* Priests, as seen in All Gas and Gaiters and Father Ted.
* Teachers, principals, and deans, as seen in Animal House and High School High.

Thirty years on, and this clip from “Yes Minister” shows exactly how positional power can be used and abused by those in the know…

The world is going through a substantial transition, and has been certainly since the 2nd World War, with the power that we were prepared to give such people in authority being severly limited, made far more transparent, or the process by which these roles are allocated being far more clearly defined. The status of politicians has most recently come under threat, as the UK expenses scandal was rather bizarrely very slowly unfolded to achieve its maximum effect. Before that, reforms of the House of Lords had already seen many hereditary peers replaced from their positions of power with life peers whose background and personal achievements were far more visible. The power of the Prime Minister in the last decade or so has shifted enormously compared with the days of Margaret Thatcher. During the Falklands Crisis, she relied upon the naivety of MPs to assume that communication with the forces in the South Atlantic took hours if not days to effect. Today, Gordon Brown’s cabinet decisions surrounding the Afghan conflict are subject to instant scrutiny and no-one expresses any surprise that wounded service personnel are brought back within hours to the UK for specialist hospital treatment. As the Catholic church reels with the escalating revelations of sexual abuse by its clergy in the 70s, 80s and 90s, those who thought they would never be questioned are finding that society has changed substantially within their lifetime.

Obviously the assumption of positional power applies to all kinds of role, to some extent dictated by the circumstances. Under certain conditions, for example, a police officer may have positional power (such as the power to detain or arrest someone) but in other situations they have none other than that given to them by members of the public who assume that they know what to do in a particular situation. Of course, this isn’t always the case…

The classic series of experiments by Prof Stanley Milgram of Yale University, beginning in 1961, in which volunteers playing the role of ‘teacher’ were asked to inflict electric shocks on a ‘learner’ when they gave a wrong answer to a word-pairing exercise, demonstrated that most people were even prepared to obey an instruction from the experimenter when they believed that it was causing severe pain, if not unconsciousness and death. They very effectively demonstrated that normal people, acting under orders from someone in authority, would obey those orders even if they meant going against their personal beliefs. In this case, the positional power was derived from being an ‘expert’. These experiments would never happen today, because of the ethical constraints, but the science was solid and they have been featured in countless programmes and publications over the years.

So most positions come with power attached, although the extent to which this is unquestioned is shifting enormously particularly for public positions. The private sector has just as much power attached to its roles though it seems to be lagging behind the public in the degree to which it becomes transparent.

The key to most positional power is that it is a balance between that which is genuinely vested in the role and that which people are prepared to give the person in authority.

How we relate to people in authority is largely dictated by our experience of authority figures in our childhood. People who are brought up to unquestioningly respect their parents, other people, teachers and so on, are likely to give away more power to other authority figures, such as managers and employer organisations, in their adult life. Those who do not have the same obedience instilled into them, are less likely to give away power to (or even recognise) their ‘seniors’.

Interestingly, the number ONE message from children to parents is that they understand that they may need to be disciplined, but it should be done with respect – not by abusing the parent’s authority.

The extent to which someone in a position of power, such as a business manager, is entitled to power because of their position has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Twenty years ago, I worked for one company where the ‘right’ of a senior manager to a named parking space was abolished. They argued that there should be a “first-in, nearest-parked” policy. Last year, I was working for a company where the ‘top’ dozen managers had named spaces within a few feet of the main entrance, whereas other employees had to walk at least a couple of hundred feet from their car to their entrance and in many cases far more. Is a manager with a PA entitled to have coffee brought to them from the machine, or do they have to get their own? Is a manager entitled to be abrupt, rude, to swear at, other employees? Are they entitled to demand attendance outside the employee’s normal hours, or to force them to work when they might have taken leave?

Of course, there will be some managers who exert more power than they are reasonably entitled to, or do so in circumstances where most members of society might question their behaviour. These ‘standards’ are highly dependent on context, but nontheless, courts are beginning to establish unambiguous definitions of bullying and harrassment – the perpetrators of which often believe that their position entitles them to behave in a particular manner. The following clip twists this around – and delivers a powerful message both about workplace behaviour and domestic violence. Some men in a relationship believe that being male gives them positional power over their partner…

Perhaps one of the most high profile cases of potential positional power abuse in recent months was that of David Letterman who openly admitted having sex with female members of his staff.

It is the use, abuse, and misperceptions of this power, that often causes problems. Over time, society changes the power that it assigns to a particular role, and we often hear examples of the impact of this. Without doubt, in Britain, the respect shown for people like police officers, teachers, and parents, has diminished in the last fifty years or so. Similarly, by virtue of their “celebrity” status, today we are prepared to give far more authority to pop-stars, movie actors, and football players. It is the basis of celebrity endorsements and is a powerful influencer of our behaviour.

Of course, this use of celebrity power is not always negative. As Dame Diana Rigg points out celebrities are frequently used to raise funds for charities for precisely this reason – the public give them an authority and the celebrities themselves do not always perform the scrutiny that they could to justify this.

I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

Best wishes

Behind the scenes, helping those of power see themselves, other people and situations differently

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