I have been asked many times about the source of power, where does it come from? Occasionally the people who ask are hoping there’s some previously unknown or hidden source of power they can use to start winning fights they’ve been losing. But belief in a secret source of power is somewhat likePonce de Leon’s belief in a fountain of youth. It doesn’t exist.
So I tell them: power comes from the ability to reward and/or punish. Put another way, power is the ability to create pain and/or pleasure. Users of power manipulate rewards and punishments to get what they want and if the pain is great enough or the rewards desirable enough they get compliance.
However, there is a price for compliance. People on the receiving end don’t just comply. In order to maintain personal integrity they develop ways to deal with being made to do things they don’t want to do. These behaviors are called coping mechanisms and fall into three categories: fight, flight, and submission. Fighters cope by rebelling, resisting, defying and getting even. Those whose coping style is flight try to escape, physically and/or emotionally. They withdraw, run away, daydream, fantasize, use alcohol and other drugs, and get sick. Those who submit are often the most desired children, students, employees, etc. but may be the least healthy. Being obedient, “respecting authority” and following orders, especially when the orders conflict with meeting important needs, is a mechanism generally learned and practiced as a child and used by many people in later life.
However, submission has a damaging effect on assertiveness, independence and a general ability to function fully.Consider this: Those who cope by submitting tend to be passive, non self-starting and dependent so they make poor employees and are hard to live with in any relationship since they tend to be sweet and compliant on the outside but angry and hostile underneath.
To get in touch with your coping style I suggest you to do a power recall exercise that instructors in my organization have used in thousands of workshops with many thousands of participants. Get a sheet of paper and make four vertical columns. At the top of the left-hand column write What I Was Made To Do. At the top of the next column writeWho Made Me Do It? At the top of the third column write What I Did (e.g. complied?) and finally in the fourth column write How I Felt And What I Then Did.
Now, think back to a time when you were in elementary school and someone made you do something you didn’t want to do. Who was it? What did you do? How did you feel about what you did and what did you then do?
Repeat this process for a time when you were older, perhaps in high school. Then, one more time, just recently.
What people discover is that the use of power simply changes the nature of the problem. For instance, in one of our workshops (Teacher Effectiveness Training) a high school principal from Florida recalled being made to sit outside his fifth grade classroom door because he sailed a paper airplane across the room during a “quiet time”. He was embarrassed and angered and as a result sneaked out to the parking lot and let the air out of one of the teacher’s tires. In this case the problem went from disrupting the class to vandalism.
Was this true for you? Did you cope in some way? The thousands of people who have done this exercise have generated nearly identical lists. See if yours are somewhere on the list.
• Rebelling, disobeying
• Retaliating, striking back, arguing
• Lying, hiding the truth
• Becoming angry, having temper tantrums
• Breaking rules
• Blaming others, tattling
• Bossing, hitting back
• Banding together with others, unionizing
• Buttering up, seeking approval
• Withdrawing, fantasizing
• Running away, quitting tasks or jobs
• Giving up, defeated
• Ignoring, the silent treatment
• Competing, needing to win
• Feeling hopeless, depressed, crying
• Becoming fearful, timid, shy
• Getting sick
• Overeating then purging or dieting
• Becoming submissive, conforming, complying
• Drinking, using drugs
• Cheating, plagiarizing
The use of one or more of these coping mechanisms in response to coercive power is absolutely predictable and is, in fact, unavoidable. Viewed in this light, they are powerful arguments against the use of this kind of authority since it corrupts both the recipients and dispensers of power. The British historian, Lord John Acton stated it succinctly when he said “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Even if you deny being corrupted every leader, parent, boss, supervisor and manager knows how much energy must go into “managing” people if they don’t want to be managed.