By Karen Tidsall, Founder and Director, InterCHANGEpd
Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.
When we hold a position of power as a parent, manager, politician, teacher, leader, mentor, or when looking after elderly relatives, we have a great responsibility to use this power wisely so we can enrich lives and empower others. So often this doesn’t happen – why?
I frequently muse over the adage ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ which results in devastating consequences. What drives this impulse to overpower and control? Maybe there is some resonance in the idea that having power and influence (particularly if we are unused to it) can trigger echoes of our omnipotent child, usually unconsciously, resulting in destructive patterns of excessive control playing out.
Dr. Thomas Millar describes omnipotence or egocentricity as a time when infants think they are the sun and the rest of the family are planets orbiting about them. Deep pre-verbal influences are playing their part. Exerting excessive power over others is a way of avoiding difficult feelings in our vulnerable Child* self. We are comforted when we feel powerful and in charge of someone with less power and on whom we can project our vulnerable and often frightened Child* self. This in turn sets up a binary power dynamic with one party being Child* (as they once where) and one being Parent* also from the past. This results in the loss of Adult* (here and now self) capacity for both parties to make actual contact – in a sense we are operating in the past not the present. This may explain why those in positions of authority can become consumed with controlling everything and everyone around them, stifling growth, feedback and creativity.
This is obviously a complex issue with lots more to say. Sustaining wise power takes constant vigilance to mitigate against unconscious impulses and a clear intention to use our power in the best interests of those we manage, govern or care for.
Here are a few ideas to help you use your power wisely.
- Notice when your omnipotent Child* is running the show and your Adult* is off on holiday! The key is to look out for an intense need to: control everything, sort people out, tell people what to do, do things for others, take over, constantly talk over or interrupt others – to name but a few. Noticing your behaviour can jolt you out of this mode. Reflect on what is happening and consider alternative behaviours e.g. being curious, listening and asking questions.
- Get a good ‘listening too’ from a coach or similar professional. This will help you maintain perspective, challenge unconscious forces, stay in Adult* and listen carefully to others.
- Focus on empowering others – when a member of staff asks for your advice instead of giving your opinion begin the conversation with asking open questions to support their thinking and problem solving abilities.
- Authentic leadership depends on including your own vulnerability. We are all fallible, make mistakes and suffer difficult feelings. Expressing yourself directly and appropriately will reap many dividends, principally a greater likelihood that you and those around you will stay in Adult*
- Encourage those with less power than you to challenge and tell you when your behaviour is hindering their development, motivation or wellbeing. As we all know power needs a counter balance to stay in check. Constructive feedback will help you exercise your power wisely. Everyone needs a critical friend to stay healthy.
I wish you well in your journey.
*Berne 1961 Transactional Analysis
Thanks to David Tidsall, Claire Gold and Brian Cotsen for their contributions.