Most of us don’t set out to be bad leaders. We start with the very best of intentions. We go on the leadership course, take time to listen to feedback, and learn from the leaders we respect.

And yet, leadership is hard. High-powered positions come with complexities and challenges. People’s attitudes and perceptions about us will change, we will encounter situations we’ve never been in before, and it’ll be down to us to make the tough calls and manage the inevitable fallouts.

In this article, we look at the types of power available to us at work and the pressures that come from a high-powered role. Then we unpack the six pitfalls of power – these are the behaviours we should all avoid if we want to become a leader worth following.

Understanding the Power You Have at Work

We have two types of power available to us at work; positional power and personal power. Both types of power will impact an organisation’s outcomes and culture.

Positional Power

Positional power is inextricably linked to your role. As you move up the ranks and become more senior within an organisation, your power increases too. A more senior role gives you greater power as it typically allows you increased control over all sorts of decisions. This type of power grows with your purview – think of country leaders and the far-reaching impact of their decisions.

Personal Power

Then, there is another type of power called personal power, which is linked to influence. We can all hold a measure of this power regardless of our job title. This power relates much more to the way we behave, our personality and the connections we make with others. A strong sense of personal power enables us to impact the organisation around us by influencing other people, especially those in positions of authority.

Whilst the power of control comes by default with positional power, personal power depends upon you creating and honing the power of influence. Interestingly, if you find yourself in a setting where you are clearly not the decision maker, one thing that can help your ability to influence another person, is to first acknowledge the power they have. By showing them you understand that they hold the ultimate decision-making authority, they will often be more receptive to your input and therefore more likely to adopt your point of view.

The Pressures of Power

Power can be a really positive force within organisations. It can be used by leaders to inspire others, affect change, and achieve results. However, power can also be misused. The ramifications of the misuse of power can be devastating to an organisation – tarnishing its culture and impeding progress.

An increase in power often means an increase in pressure. As you become more senior within an organisation, you begin overseeing bigger budgets, teams and projects. Suddenly the stakes become higher as the potential losses from making a poor decision are that much bigger.

Leaders can face greater expectations from others too, adding to this pressure to perform. If you think of a football manager for a Premier League team, they are often under great public scrutiny. They face the disapproval of fans and the very real possibility of job loss by club owners if they and their team don’t perform against the standards these groups set.

According to Diamond Leadership, a consultancy focused on connecting the dots between leadership and culture, it’s the combination of higher stakes and greater expectations plus the increased cognitive and emotional load that comes with having a powerful position, that mean it is a challenge to use power well, even with the best of intentions.

Avoiding the Six Pitfalls of Power

So, what does power look like when it’s being misused? Based on their extensive experience working with managers, Diamond Leadership have identified six main ways power shows up wrong in organisations. We’ve dug into these six potential pitfalls of power and unpacked them below:

1.    You’re Hard to Approach

The thought that people might actually fear you may sound ridiculous but listen closely for a second. You could consider yourself the friendliest person in your organisation, and have the best intentions about being approachable, but if you hold a position of authority over someone, they will naturally be intimidated by you. This intimidation escalates further when you are by nature a remote, reserved or highly competent person.

If people are afraid to approach you, then that can create an atmosphere in which:

  • they are reluctant to voice their concerns
  • they don’t contribute their opinions
  • they make every effort to avoid seeking your assistance when needed

This can have big consequences as you can’t deal with issues that might arise if you aren’t being told about them, and you definitely aren’t getting the most out of your team if they are too afraid to speak to you.

2.    You’re Overusing Your Power

“While using influence without authority is a positive use of power, using authority without influence can be problematic.”  – Diamond Leadership

That’s because using authority without influence often means failing to gain buy-in and commitment from others and pushing forward on decisions even though you don’t have the support of the team.

It could be tempting when you’ve got all the authority you need to get things done to overuse your positional power. However, you’ll actually be a much more effective leader for combining this with influence. If you take time to build rapport with those around you, and bring them on the journey with you, they will be much more on board with your decisions.

In this sense, followership matters just as much as leadership. You need to put the work in to build a team that feel heard and valued before you can lead them anywhere.

3.    You’re Underusing Your Power

The underuse of power by a leader, can be just as toxic as the overuse of power. Leaders who are conflict-avoidant neglect to address disruptive behaviour among employees or to hold people to account. Meetings go off track, deadlines aren’t met, and tough decisions go unmade. If you’ve ever worked for a leader like this, you’ll know it creates an extremely chaotic, confusing, and frustrating environment to be in.

Don’t mistake timidity for humility. Being a humble leader still requires you to exert your leadership. Creating a productive environment for others means leaders must use their power to hold those difficult conversations, make the tough calls when required and facilitate differences between colleagues productively.

4.    You’re Cracking Under Pressure

When things go wrong, which they inevitably will from time to time, how do you react? Leaders who lose their composure under stress can end up overreacting and hurting others. This can look like blaming others or the environment, publicly criticising and shaming people, and even spouting out threats.

Working under a leader who has outbursts because they can’t handle the pressure is extremely unpleasant. Their inability to manage their emotions creates a toxic workplace environment characterised by low morale, disengagement, decreased productivity, and a high employee turnover.

Peak-End Law

Did you know that according to peak-end law, people only remember three interactions with you? That’s how they felt about you the first time they met you, the last time they did and, most importantly, how you acted in a crisis. To those you work with, how you use your power under pressure is what really counts.

5. You’re Playing Favourites

Whilst it’s normal to have preferences and even unintentional biases, part of good leadership is always striving to act in a fair and inclusive way towards all.

People want to know that they have equal opportunities and that their work is being fairly evaluated. If an employee thinks they have missed out on a promotion, financial reward, or interesting opportunities due to a manager playing favourites, it can severely undermine morale and even lead to legal action.

At EPP we work with lots of elite teams. In the sports environment, one way favouritism can inadvertently show up is by prioritising those who are on the pitch, the players, and yet not valuing or giving the same levels of reward or opportunity to the people working behind the scenes.

6. You’re Too ‘Chummy’

A frequent criticism of managers is their tendency to gossip, disclose confidential information, and blur professional boundaries. In other words, they are acting too ‘chummy.’

Holding a position of responsibility means you’ll have access to more sensitive information, most likely about colleagues and company direction. It could be tempting to let some of this information slip from time to time to your peers or subordinates; don’t.

Sharing inside information may win you friends in the immediate but in the long-term gossip breeds a culture of mistrust, and the leader may find the respect they once garnered is gone. Whilst you may think you’re simply being relational, if you let slip sensitive or confidential information this could become a liability issue and you risk harming your career.

Our Final Thoughts

The way power is handled by individuals within organisations directly impacts its culture and outcomes. When power is misused, the damage can be crippling. Organisational progress becomes stunted, and the culture, toxic.

There is a lot of additional pressure which comes with holding a high-powered role, which can mean it’s hard to use power well even with the best of intentions. Whilst we will all make mistakes along the way; a good leader will learn from them. By understanding the power that we possess and aspiring to leverage it wisely for the benefit of others, we can become powerful and influential leaders, worthy of following.