Friday, February 10, 2020

Can Might Be Made Right?

An Ethical Basis for Workplace Power

Power is everywhere in the workplace. It's an essential part of leadership, whether it's formal power by virtue of position and authority; or informal power derived from expertise, influence or personal charisma. Knowledge is also said to bring power—and having the ear of the right people certainly offers a kind of power to the person who can sway their viewpoint.

Since power exists in many forms, and can be used in all kinds of ways, the correct use of power is near the heart of any civilized and ethical approach to leadership. Without power, leadership scarcely exists. So how and when to use that power, for what purposes, and with what intentions, are decisions no leader can avoid.

There's no need for a long discussion of the nature and sources of power. Power is power and we all know it when we see it. Anyone who can compel, persuade or entice others to do what he or she wants exercises power over them. There's the power to spend resources; the power to make decisions that are binding on others; and the power to give employment or take it away. If you grant rewards or set punishments, you're exercising power.

Power may be common in organizations, but it's not allocated evenly. People at the top have more formal power, plus the power of patronage and granting favors; but the most exalted executive still has to share that power with others, unless he or she is able to do everything unaided. And even the lowliest and humblest worker has the power to waste time, slack off when the boss isn't looking, and—in extreme cases—to sabotage effective working.

How can leaders use power in humane ways? How can they allow the people they lead to retain their dignity? If power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton claimed, this looks like a hopeless task. Perhaps we can start by distinguishing the four essential questions we need to ask in judging whether power is being used in ethical ways:
  1. Where does the power come from? Is it legitimate? Does the person wielding the power have an agreed right to do so? Usurpers start from a position that is unethical and dishonest.

  2. How is it being used? Openly or covertly? Are the means appropriate to the nature of the power: for example, instruction or persuasion? Power deployed through threats, blackmail, bribery or violent force surely can't be ethical in the working environment. Bad ways of using it make for bad power.

  3. What is the power being used for? The ends may not be enough to justify the means, but bad ends will surely disqualify the use of power to further them.

  4. What's the intention behind the use of power? If it's not benign, using power isn't going to be ethical. Bad intentions corrupt whatever means are used to bring them about.
If the use of any kind of workplace power is to be ethical, it must conform to these guidelines:
  • It must always be legitimate. Legitimate power includes all kinds of authority granted by the organization, as well as power arising from personal achievements, knowledge, expertise or character. Illegitimate or usurped power (deceit, blackmail, bribery, brute strength, threats, violence, corruption, trickery or dishonesty) can never be ethical.

  • It must be used in civilized ways. To be ethical, power must be used in ways that are consistent with the well-being and dignity of everyone involved. That rules out bullying, taking advantage of private knowledge, preying on the weak and granting favors in return for dishonest or unethical actions. It also precludes discrimination, sexual harassment, pay-offs and exploitation of others for whatever purpose.

  • It must have an ethical purpose. If the purpose for which the power is used is itself unethical (sharp practice, harming or exploiting others, dishonest gain, concealing immoral or illegal acts, personal advancement at another's expense, financial chicanery), it doesn't matter what kind of power we're talking about, how it's deployed or who benefits. It's unethical, period. In a civilized society, the ends can never justify the means, nor the means justify the ends.

  • The intention behind the use of power must itself be ethical. Workplace power cannot be ethical if it's used to harm or belittle others; to cause embarrassment or spread deceit; or to further your own interests at the direct expense of the legitimate interests of other people. You can win, but the competition has to be fair. And you can look out for your own interests, so long as you do so in open, honest and ethical ways. Winning by cheating, whether anyone finds out or not, isn't acceptable. Civilized people don't play with marked cards or loaded dice.
In the end, power is ethically neutral. As George Bernard Shaw, the British playwright and political writer, said:
"Power does not corrupt men; but fools, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power."
Like happiness, ethics come from what is within you, not from externals. If your use of power becomes abusive, it's because of who and what you are—and how you choose to live your life.

P.S. I shall be away on vacation until February 24th, with no access to emails or the Internet, so there will now be a short break in postings. See you when I return.

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James Shewmaker said...

"If I have despised the cause of my main-servant or of my maid-servant when they contended with me, - What shall I do when God riseth up; and when He visiteth, what shall I answer Him?"

"Did not He that made me in the womb, make him? And did not One fashion us in the womb?"

Job 31:13-15

Job is believed to be one of the oldest books in the Tanakh. It is written about a man who apparently lived before the Exodus from Egypt. This is one of the earliest examples of a denouncement of dehumaniziation or of class superiority.

Job argues that those who possess power and who either abuse their power or abuse those who are subservient to their power - will suffer the consequences of being required to answer to God for their actions.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous said...

You've hit the nail on the head: power is what the workplace is all about. And that's why it causes so much stress. You should read this awesome article that looks at leadership from a totally unique perspective - 'why your boss is programmed to be a dictator' at discusses power in the right context, and why no one seems to confront the issue head on.

5:08 AM  

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