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Phenomenal Cosmic Power





And, of course, power.

As humans roaming the planet, our existence is frequently understood in relationship to other humans. A person can be described as a child, parent, hunter, jokester, leader, connector, or maybe a provider. Each one of these roles comes with expectations that are understood either formally or informally. Each one of these roles carries a type and amount of power.

Does the jokester have power? When it comes to a battle of wills, maybe not so much. When it comes to disarming a hostile situation, you bet!

One of my favorite types of power is coercive. If you happen to read this and start to have an opinion, maybe hold that thought, just for a minute. It's not really as bad as it sounds. In fact, coercive power may be the most influential kind of power there is. According to French and Raven, there are six types of power:

  1. Legitimate

  2. Reward

  3. Expert

  4. Referent

  5. Coercive

  6. Informational

Coercive power is described as, "This comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance."

The portion that stands out to me is "the belief that." I called this my favorite type of power because of the absolutely necessary close attention that is required to be devoted to titles, responsibilities, and relationships. Another element that brings this type of power to the top of the list for me is the ability for accountability.

The following is an approximation of a conversation, perhaps debate, I had with a colleague:

There are two individuals who have an interaction. For the purpose of this telling, the individuals are Pat and Chris. The interaction moves from being merely collegial. The move, however, is based on the perceptions of one colleague, not both. The perception of the one colleague, Pat, led them to believe (or possibly hope) that it was time to move from a collegial conversation to a possible amorous one. Pat then asks Chris out on a date.

This by itself, can be okay. There are laws, rules, and general expectations for workplace relationships. In this case, Chris declined the date. About a week later, Pat asked again and in doing so, indicated how much they liked working with Chris and would like to see that continue.

With what I've shared so far, this seems innocuous. To my colleague, it seemed innocuous as well. Frankly, for me, I couldn't understand why my colleague didn't see the issue. What I haven't shared (but both my colleague and I knew at the time) was that Pat was above Chris on the organizational chart. There weren't in the same unit and Chris never reported to Pat, but, in very broad terms as position titles are considered, Pat's level oversaw Chris's level.

Considering the reporting relationship, Pat held no power over Chris with respect to being able to bring any repercussions to Chris in any way. This means they were just two adults who worked in the same place.

I argued that while the behavior might not be considered harassment, may not be a policy violation, and looks to be not a violation of law, it still wasn't right. My colleague was absolutely accurate in describing the policy, the organizational relationship, and the law as they interpreted the text. I argued that I agreed with all of that, but because Chris could interpret that Pat could somehow influence Chris's work environment, then Pat held power over Chris.

My colleague had to sit with it for a minute, but then said that they agreed. This was problematic even if just a learning opportunity compared to an involuntary invitation to seek gainful employment elsewhere.

Back to coercive being my favorite. There are plenty of people, some in leadership positions, some not, who will fully exploit all of the leverage they possibly can. This is usually to gain favor in some way either by giving themselves an advantage or by giving someone else a disadvantage. A truly ruthless person can quickly and relatively easily gain leverage, get their way, and usually move up an organizational chart.

In contrast, an effective leader will understand that their coercive power requires attention and careful handling. Sometimes people with titles will make suggestions that sound like declarations. The legitimate power of the title may be enough to convince people to do what is said, but the fear of a kind of punishment for noncompliance may be the factor that coerces people into action.

Therefore, leaders need to be careful with how they communicate AND should be held to a higher standard for communication and directing work. This isn't to suggest a boss shouldn't be "in charge." But when bestowed with power, the effective leader must fully observe that it's an honor and responsibility to have the opportunity to serve others. If they fail to recognize the responsibility with the required sobriety, they should be held to a higher standard because they have more influence and ability to both positively and negatively affect people's lives.

In societies of any size, power is a factor. In societies of any size, relationships are factors. Smaller organizations may have less complex relationships while larger organizations can be more complex. The various natures of relationships is always in some degree of flux. Additionally, the different types of power can show up in different ways at different times.

Coercive power relies on the interpretation of someone else. A person in any kind of power position owes their team the respect and understanding that coercive power may exist where they don't recognize it. Therefore, leaders must take every precaution possible to avoid perception of abuse of power. Leaders must also hold others accountable for inappropriate behavior looking at policy, procedure, and the power they hold in the situation they were involved in. Even if that power is believed to be present absent title, role, or formal influence.

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