Be honest: Which term better defines your leadership style: flashlight or blowtorch?

In other words, do you typically use your leadership authority to create ‘light’ – that is, greater employee clarity and perspective, eagerness and attentiveness – so those around you can better ‘see’ what they need to accomplish?

Or do you turn up the ‘heat’ when others don’t seem to understand what you want, and start blaming, chastising, publicly criticizing, and maybe even bullying others out of frustration – regardless of who gets scorched in the process?

‘Power OVER’

Back in the 1920’s – yes, almost a full century ago! – Mary Parker Follett became one of the true pioneers of organizational theory and behavior when she articulated a workplace dynamic called ‘Power OVER’ to describe how bosses would use their authority to induce their direct reports to concede to their wishes through coercion, dominance, and other abuses of power. It was a very popular way in which to lead, at the time. Regrettably, it still is.

Bosses who take a ‘Power OVER’ approach in their employee interactions typically say things like:

  • “Do it because I say so.”
  • “That’s your problem.”
  • “You’re either with me or against me.”
  • “It’s my way or the highway.”
  • “Just get it done.”
  • “I’m the boss, not you. Never forget that I’m the boss!”

‘Power OVER’ is about using one’s authority to shut others down and force compliance. It’s about taking legitimate employee questions and turning them into win/lose showdowns of power, where the boss not only show s/he has far MORE power than the employee, but that the employee has far LESS power than the boss, too.

When experts say that ’employees don’t leave companies, they leave bosses,’ this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

Power ‘WITH’

In contrast, ‘Power WITH’ is a more collaborative-based approach to power, authority, and problem-solving – one that uses the logic of one’s thinking to sway opinion, rather than a brute force attack. It’s where bosses allow employees to help direct how the boss’s power is used.

You can recognize ‘Power WITH’ interactions because the boss asks things like:

  • “What do you need from me on on this?”
  • “Where are you stuck and how can I help?”
  • “Do you need to talk about how you’ll do that?”
  • “What other facets of this should we be focusing on?”
  • “Would it be helpful for me to explain why this is an important assignment?”

Paradoxically, this is not an abdication of power by the boss. Rather, it’s the consolidation and expansion of the boss’s authority through its targeted use on behalf of  helping direct reports do a better job than they might otherwise.

Leadership Light versus Authoritative Heat

In the context of change management, ‘Power OVER’ is about heat – a boss using bluster and having a total disregard for collateral damage, as s/he calls calls attention to an issue or pressing priority. Thematically, it’s like using a blowtorch to melt employee resistance.

‘Power WITH’, on the other hand, is more about light – like turning on a flashlight to help employees ‘see’ where they need to go and what they need to do. It eliminates resistance by showing there’s really no need TO resist.

‘Power OVER’ builds begrudging employee compliance; ‘Power WITH’ builds focus and greater employee engagement.

Your Turn, Your Choice

If your job responsibilities are simple enough that you don’t need any help finding the answers, ‘Power OVER’ may work just fine for you. Employees will grouse, and leave – or grouse and stay – but who cares because they’re likely not providing with you much value-added, anyway.

On the other hand, if your responsibilities include any real complexity to it at all, you’re going to need to be able to rely on the able assistance of your staff to help you succeed. As such, taking a ‘Power WITH’ approach will likely serve you, and them – and your company, customers and stakeholders – much, much better.

It’s your choice. Until it isn’t, anymore.

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