How to know if you have a power-hungry boss (and what to do about it)

There’s an old saying: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s attributed to Lord Acton, a nineteenth-century British historian and moralist. In an organisational context, both the positive and negative aspects of power play out. When a person wields power over others for their own gain, it ultimately erodes corporate culture, team dynamics and leads to poor business outcomes.

On the flipside, it can also be a force for good. Power of this nature is designed to help those around us. It provides the courage to take action when it’s needed. It comes from knowing ourselves and being comfortable to share power, rather than a focus on having power over others.

Power is bestowed

Dacher Keltner in his book, The Power Paradox, writes that power is something we acquire by improving the lives of other people in our social network. In this way, power is granted to us by others. However, he notes that often our very experience of power destroys the skills that gave us the power in the first place.

His research has found that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively. For example, to have affairs, drive aggressively, communicate in rude or disrespectful ways, or lie. Over time, by behaving in this way they lose power.

Be alert to warning signs

What are the warning signs that someone may be ‘drunk’ on power? It can be when they:

  • Think their rights and needs outweigh those of others.
  • Are striving for outcomes that are all about their own needs.
  • Stop listening to the ideas and opinions of other people.
  • Believe they are the smartest person in the room and therefore ignore feedback.
  • Start to lie or cheat so they always come out on top.

In political and diplomatic circles, the concept of a ‘balance of power’ is used. It proposes that outcomes are enhanced when no single nation is so powerful it is able to dominate world affairs. This concept is based on the understanding that power in the hands of the few isn’t healthy.

It equally applies in the working environment. To have a healthy, thriving work environment it’s essential to have a balance of power. This is a culture where power is shared and distributed, and no one leader dominates over others.

Action to take

The action to take if you see these warning signs in your boss depends on your relationship with them. If they have a growth mindset and are open to feedback, it can start with a conversation about how you are working together. Encourage them to focus on how the team works together as well, as healthy team dynamics can dilute any impact. If they have a fixed mindset and are therefore closed to feedback, it is about finding a way to work around them and to ensure that their behaviour doesn’t rub off on you. In this situation, it’s important to have a network around you that will support you.

Often people who work with powerful people will inadvertently absorb similar behavioural traits. Be open to creating the right culture by:

  • Not surrounding yourself with sycophants.
  • Being open to challenge and constructive debate.
  • Creating open and transparent decision-making processes, which enable people to be involved.
  • Owning your mistakes – seeking feedback and making amends

Abraham Lincoln said: “Nearly all men [or women] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian. She works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress in complex environments. She is the author of Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work. For more information, visit or contact [email protected]
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