A Publication of WTVP

Two days into his new position at Morris Metals, Bill Harris found himself in a jam. For several years, he had worked alongside his co-workers on the shop floor. As a new supervisor, Bill now was their boss. He knew it, they knew it, and it was only a matter of time before they tested him. Jerry, a fabricator whom Bill knew pretty well, bypassed some essential safety procedures—a violation of company policy and common sense—that guaranteed some disciplinary action.

In the four-hour supervisory training session, Bill learned that he would face some tests that pitted his loyalty for former co-workers against the policy and direction of the company. "Someone will try to see what you’re made of," the trainer told Bill. "So you’ll have to be tough. Remember, you’re different now."

Bill remembered these words when he called Jerry into his office. Jerry came in and slumped into a chair and said jokingly, "So what are you gonna do, boss?" The words dripped with sarcasm. "Are you gonna fire me?"

"Oh, I just might," Bill said, practically spitting with anger. "I just might."

One of the most difficult lessons in business is to learn how to handle power—and even more importantly, to handle it ethically. Simply put, power is the ability to cause action to occur. Some people view power in finite terms: if you have more, I have less. So we have to compete to prevail, and prevailing is the goal. After all, there is a limited amount of power to share. This is a more pessimistic view of human nature.

Others optimistically see power as a noble force that can be shared so all people can get something of what they want. For them, empowerment of others is the supreme goal. There’s plenty of power to go around, and the more power shared, the more everyone can benefit.

The fundamental view of people and power deeply influences how we handle the types of power: personal power, positional power, persuasional power and situational power.

Personal power comes from the web of relationships you have and how well you are "networked." People do what you ask (or tell) because they will do it for you. Positional power is bestowed by a position with authority and sanction. People do what you ask because they know that, if they don’t, you can invoke discipline.

Persuasional power comes from your ability to empower others. Situational power shifts the balance constantly. In some cases, the boss is in charge; in others, the employee, who may have superior knowledge or better relationships with employees or greater charisma.

Brand new in his job as supervisor, Bill tries to invoke positional power, especially when he’s backed into a corner by someone who possesses personal power. He’s afraid that if he shows himself as weak, he’ll compromise his ability to work with subordinates. He’s a power pessimist—power can’t be shared or given away.

The problem is, many long-time managers think they must use the power they have to get things done. They can be little tyrants, treating workers poorly and placing unreasonable demands on people to show "who’s boss."

In the nonprofit sector and the church—two arenas I know well—power must be used wisely to bring about results with volunteers. As veteran Herman Miller Furniture CEO Max De Pree said, "one has to learn to lead without power." That means that, for one to have true power and to use it well, one has to learn how to serve. In time, we hope Bill will learn positional power actually causes very little to happen. When people are motivated by persuasional power—servanthood and the calling forth of potential—then much can be accomplished. IBI