Abusing Power To Motivate Change

We’re often asked what our most important findings are from our research in Crucial Accountability. There are actually two revolutionary concepts. The first is safety – creating an environment where it’s possible to talk about almost anything with anyone. It’s so liberating and empowering when you understand it!

The second concept is power. In moments of accountability, we’ve found that most people don’t believe they have enough power to get the other person to care about the issue at hand. If we believe the other person won’t care, we shrink away because we think power is the problem.

This is dead wrong. Understanding this principle is also extremely liberating and empowering because it goes against a natural tendency. We tend to believe that to motivate change, we need to use power.


Power, Intimidation, and Fear

I once watched an individual that had a concern with her senior manager. The manager was abusive and constantly referred to people as morons and imbeciles in public settings. When I talked to her about whether or not she was going to confront this, she responded, “Absolutely, I am!”

Nobody else had previously considered doing this. Why? Because of power. The boss was more powerful than they were.

I also know of a staff who complained regularly about their CEO. They said when the CEO had concerns with them, he would “take them out to the shed”. Does that give you a mental image of a father taking his child outside to give him a walloping?

These were senior level staff members, far into their careers, yet when the CEO was disappointed with them, he would drag them into his office and berate them. Why? Because he believed that putting them down would intimidate change.

Why Do We Still Do It?

Why is that when our own children misbehave, we raise our voices, point our fingers, scowl and even threaten them?

The first reason is that we believe it’s efficient. We think that exerting our power and intimidation makes change happen quickly.

The second reason is that we commit the fundamental attribution error. We believe they deserve it because they just don’t care or they have bad motives.

Power and Relationships

The cost of using power to motivate change is that it violates relationships.

A friend of mine described a bad weekend he recently had. He and his wife both travelled a lot in their work. When they came home one Friday evening, he was hoping that they’d be able to spend some quality time together – cuddle on the couch and watch a movie. The problem was that she was standoffish and distant.

When he asked her if they could spend some time together, and she rebuffed him. He replied “Well, thank you very much, ice queen.”

I asked what his goal had been in saying that. He said that in the insanity of the moment, he hoped it would bring her around. When I asked him if it worked, he replied, “Not particularly well.”

No surprise there!

When we invoke power – when we try to coerce or intimidate to bring people around – we provoke resistance. We actually cause them to resist the very change we want. We also violate the relationship, and this causes our relationships to suffer.

If you ever think you lack the power to have a crucial confrontation, that very thought is the problem. We’ve found that those who are best at accountability almost never use their power to try to motivate change.

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