The use, abuse and under-use of power in the workplace

Kairen Harris
February 27, 2019
Kairen Harris

In theory at least, power is a neutral concept. It can be used for good or ill. The word however tends to be associated with aggressive misuse such as:

  • over powering or standing over those lower down the heirarchy ,
  • taking up more space, physical or verbal, than fair sharing would dictate,
  • seeking or accepting favours, to which there is no legitimate entitlement;
  • ignoring rules but expecting others to follow them

Less commonly identified as a misuse of power however , is its under utilisation. We would suggest that at least as many workplace crises arise as a result of supervisors or managers who abrogate their role accountabilities as those who exceed them. Typical power under utilisation includes:

  • Failure to set clear directions or properly define accountabilities or work standards.
  • Unwillingness to tackle poor performance (or moving the problem on).
  • Ignoring micro inequities in the work group such as lateness, gossip, discourtesy, sniping or passive-aggressive behaviours
  • Failing to challenge peer managers when they break rules.
  • Not finding time to coach or develop staff.

There are few people who actually relish the more challenging of these tasks. Accepting any role, however, with a supervisory accountability is to sign up to these responsibilities. Your employer has a right to expect that you will act at all times from the authority of the role and not from any internal sense of discomfort.

What contributes to this unwillingness to act from the inherent power of your supervisory role?

Imposter syndrome

A sense that you are no better than others and that you should not “tell them what to do”. This can be especially acute with people new to supervisory roles or those with an experienced and well entrenched team, who appear not to welcome direction or where a younger person is managing an older one.


A belief that you get things done through buddy relations with your team and that exercising positional power will damage this. This is a common symptom where the supervisor has been promoted from within a peer group and is often a factor where no specific supervisory training has been provided to assist the incumbent to understand their changed accountabilities. Some research suggests this is also more of a challenge for women, generally acculturated to share power and decision making. (There is of course nothing wrong with inclusive decision making, but ultimately the supervisor does need to own the decision and some cannot be shared).


A fear that you might get it wrong, so better leave people to work it out for themself. This is exacerbated if supervisors are not taught how to delegate without micromanagement on the one hand or complete abdication on the other; to give and take constructive feedback and especially if they have not had good prior role models themselves


A sense that ticking off the list of ‘hard KPI’s- measurable outcomes- is more important than managing staff. It is course important that the team achieves but they are likely to achieve more if the supervisor focuses on doing less themself and more on ensuring their team are operating effectively. It is after all exhausting to have to think for everyone! Organisations can help here by ensuring that effective management of staff IS a hard KPI and suitably rewarded, for anyone in a supervisory role. Everyone in a workplace has more task than time available. However if you accept a supervisory job , you have committed to spending at least 20% of your time investing in the achievement of others.

Conflict aversion

No-one likes giving unwelcome feedback, especially to those who push back assertively, but some supervisors are more avoidant than others. Consider the possibility that rather than a kindness , this is generally a selfish stance. Failure to provide coaching and feedback denies others the opportunity to grow and improve and progress, and eventually leaves a future supervisor with an impossible task of telling someone that what they have done all their career, whether performance or behaviour, is ‘suddenly’ not good enough. If you have accepted the title and pay that goes with the supervisory job, you have signed up for the tough stuff too!

Integrity (or self indulgence)?

This seems like an odd one, but we often come across supervisors who do not agree with the direction that the business is going and make this known to their subordinates. The supervisor feels relieved about disassociating themself from unwelcome decisions. To them, this feels like ‘authenticity’. But does it actually help the staff? if you are making me redundant, do I feel better for knowing you think it was the wrong decision and it pains you to tell me? Will I come to terms better with the new organisational change if my supervisor is telling me that the folk in Head Office are all delusional? This is a classic example of abuse of positional power. By all means argue with the proposed the direction upwards and behind closed doors, but your job is to make it as easy as possible for your staff to move forward with that which cannot be changed.

So next time you think about workplace abuse of power, remember under use can be as harmful as over use, but is more insidious.

About Kairen Harris

Kairen Harris

Kairen specialises in strategic workplace advice, dispute resolution and policy development. She understands how and when external HR can best augment internal function. Her depth of experience, wise counsel and practical problem-solving make Kairen highly sought-after.

Subscribe to the Worklogic blog to receive expert advice on resolving workplace complaints and building a positive culture at work direct to your inbox each week!

For event invites and compelling insights into resolving workplace conflict and building a positive culture at work!

Integrity Line

Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.