Flawed Barrels 3: Misuse of Power

Organizations distribute power for a purpose. Whether people derive their power from their position, expertise, or their capacity to award or withdraw resources, the point is to further the mission. A test of anyone’s use or misuse of power is its alignment with the core mission of the workgroup or the organization as a whole.

A colleague described the misuse of power in project teams. Problems arose when people used their control over resources essential to the project to help or to thwart the work of others on the team. Those who controlled access to the necessary staff or project funds would schedule meetings and events to include some of the team and exclude others who were committed to travel or conflicting responsibilities at those times.

The result was that power that was intended to focus the organization’s capacity to fulfill its mission was being used to further an individual’s personal objectives. The result was that the individuals misusing power enhanced their positions and their cliques within the organization. However, excluding part of the project team not only wasted resources the organization had designed to apply to the project, it weakened the excluded individuals’ capacity to develop through project participation. In addition, the experience built resentment among those excluded during the process. The team’s resiliency diminishes.

Challenge to Leaders

    • Monitor Power Dynamics. Distributing power is essential for effective management, but one cannot delegate and disappear. Responsible delegation of authority calls for an ongoing flow of information about its use.

    • Talk with Project Leaders and First Line Managers. Power can go to one’s head. It has been said that power corrupts. Even the most petty authority over other people could be misused. Problems do not arise solely from ill intent, but also from people lacking the experience, values, and perspective to use authority properly.

    • Talk with Team Members. Through direct conversations or surveys, monitoring the experiences and reactions of team members is an integral part of distributing power or leadership throughout the organization.

The basic point is that power is a valuable resource that requires close monitoring. Organizational leaders remain responsible for the exercise of power, even the power that they have distributed to others.

How is power monitored where you work?


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    You description about power use make us think, at least, about two types of leader, one focused on group goals and other in personal goals. The second type of leader characterizes our institution, because they arrive following a political carrer. But your challenge to leaders is a good excersise of reflection to change their minds and put attention to their team. Thanks


  2. Heriberto
    The political agenda is a difficult one to live with. It diverts from the core mission and undermines employees’ relationships with one another. I wish you well in overcoming those dynamics in your organization.


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