The Need For Power

Written by Anupriya Jain under Dr. Anu Goel for – 27 April, 2013

Published on

Ankur (name changed) has a good post in a multinational company. He is successful, married, dedicated but no, not happy. While he is extremely efficient in achieving his own targets, unfortunately he expects the same level of efficiency from his colleagues and juniors. And here lies the problem. Ankur is a control-freak. He not only wants things done, but done ONLY in a particular manner. Sadly, the authoritative traits have seeped into his marital life too, causing upheavals with his wife. Chronic verbal abuse has also set in.

Probably while you read this, you are identifying with Ankur. If not, you might be comparing your own bosses with him, nodding in complete agreement to the misery it causes to you. Well, you cannot straight away categorize yourself or them as ‘mean’. Psychology says that it is a negative aspect of every human’s N-Pow, that is, the Need for Power.

Renowned psychologist David McClelland popularized the term N-Pow in 1961, influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray who first identified the underlying psychological human needs and motivational processes – one of which is the need for power. It helps explain an individual’s need to be in charge. People who exhibit N-Pow tendencies are most satisfied by seeing their environment move in a certain direction, more importantly due to their involvement.We have all had positions of authority or power at some point in our lives. It could be at home, at the workplace, in school or even during games played as children. Remember how no one wanted to play the Dad while playing house? It is certainly surprising because technically, Dads are the ‘source of power’ in the house. Well, it is because when you play house, the mother has the control of the kitchen toys – thus the role everyone wants to play.

Therefore, if you are doubting yourself because you are one of those students during college times who always wanted to stand for union elections or the one who has always looked for power-wielding jobs, stop blaming yourself. But if you are a control-freak, read on.

There is a reason to why it is an issue of trouble if people very high on the need for power occupy the top brass. In a set of 3 studies conducted by Dr. Lammers and Dr. Galinsky, the duo first determined each participant’s degree of N-Pow and then gave them some tests such as rolling the die in an isolated cubicle and honestly reporting results in exchange for a lottery. They were also asked questions regarding morality such as over-reporting travel expenses at work etc. The researchers found out that power tends to corrupt and promote a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself.  They also found that people in power think that it is justified for them to break rules not just because they can get away with it, but also because they are entitled to do so. This clearly portrays a dangerous leadership.

And this is exactly where the need for power starts turning over a negative leaf. In the four stages of power development given my McClelland, the first two stages of dependency and autonomy are harmless. But the third stage is what makes you the Prada-wearing-Devil. It is this stage of assertion and competition where, as McClelland claims, even activities such as gift-giving become an act of domination rather than an act of sharing.

So what is the soother in this entire negative perspective of power? What acts as the silver lining? There are precisely two reasons why you haven’t hit rock bottom yet. First, the third stage is called both negative and positive by McClelland himself; he calls it competitive power. This basically means that the competitive stage can be used in both negative and positive ways; it all depends on how you perceive it and how much effort you put in to make sure you don’t misuse this power. It all depends if you use your power to derive pleasure out of suppressing others or if you can satisfy it by taking pleasure in personal and community growth at the same time.Secondly, the fourth stage that follows the dark third stage is termed as the stage of ‘selfless service’. They say that people on this stage satisfy their need for power by subordinating personal goals to a higher authority. In simpler terms, putting others before self and sacrificing own good for a higher motive. Believe it or not, you feel powerful if you are able to use your competencies to help out others.

So picture it this way. Every human being is on the ladder of power; it’s a natural tendency. You feel bad or are being seen as bad because you maybe are one of those that are higher up on the ladder, that is, high on the need for power. But that’s the whole point. You are already there – now it’s in your hands to be at the third or the fourth stage. It just takes a willful jump. You can go to the rung of selfless service and change your life.


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