Handling power: Its abuse and the differences between generations

An interview with three leaders about handling power in companies:

christavanderburgh stephangrabmeier hansjoergfetzer
Christa van der Burgh Stephan Grabmeier Hansjörg Fetzer



How do the generations differ in the way they handle power? How do younger staff members handle it?


Christa: What I see here in our organization is this: On the one hand, the younger generation mostly sees the word “power” as negative, because they seem to believe it excludes the concept of cooperation. At the same time, within this group there are a lot of different approaches to the topic of power. I also see a difference in the way people who are now in their 40s and 50s exercise power as compared to people aged from 25 to 30. I believe that in general, the younger generation focuses more heavily on taking different perspectives into account in order to make mutual decisions. In the older generation, there seems to be a tendency to be more resolute – yes, they still listen to other opinions, but in the event of doubt, they are more prepared to push forward on their own position. Maybe for the younger generation, “power” is no longer the right term. For them it’s more about effectiveness, and that can work well for groups too – being successful and effective as a team.


Hansjörg: My observations differ a little. I know young managers who like to make decisions and take responsibility. They like to exercise power in this way, and we as a company empower them to do so. People, who exercise power, make decisions, stand out from the crowd, can under certain circumstances make themselves unpopular and vulnerable. It takes courage and strength, and in my opinion, it is therefore less a matter of age and more of general disposition. However, there is an interesting correlation between age and power. I see younger generations tend not to simply accept power, but rather challenge and question it. Young people, and I see this as a great thing, seem to have less fear of opening their mouths when they feel that power is not being exercised correctly.


Stephan: Just like Christa, I also see that young people interpret power as something negative. I believe this is to do with the way they have been socialized by their parents, grandparents, teachers, professors etc. These generations have mostly come from a time where there has been a different understanding of leadership and power, sometimes shaped by hierarchical structures, and in some cases by having predominately men in leadership positions. I believe that each generation is in conflict with the previous one and the one that comes after it. I have children, and see how quickly generations develop new value systems that vary from those of their parents and grandparents, and that will vary from that of their own children. However, young people definitely understand that power is necessary, and they demand it too. No-one wants to work in a chaotic system. However, the ways and means of making decisions are something else entirely.  Having power doesn’t mean making decisions alone. We should understand leadership as making decisions based on a collective process because we know that 15 out of 16 decisions made as a collective are better than a single expert opinion.



What happens when power is abused? And why does it happen? How do we handle it?


Christa: I think that abuses of power happen when you begin to put your own interests before the public interest. There is definitely a fine line to cross — especially in companies where it is often about defending your own position and making your area a success. It’s sometimes built into the system, for example, personal salary targets are often linked to individual performance and only rarely to the overall success of the company or team. Plus, power is closely associated with status — and that’s not something people give up without a fight. So, it’s not uncommon for power to be abused when people are afraid of losing it. Management positions — particularly C-level — are overwhelmingly occupied by older generations and predominately men. They tend to handle power more forcefully. So, I think diversity and cultural changes are the best way to avoid abuses of power. I’ve seen it here at Haufe, we have been able to bring in many new, young people over recent years and it’s doing us good — people are becoming more critical of the system, questioning it, speaking out when something isn’t right. Lots of things are being deconstructed and changed by this, including how we deal with power.


Hansjörg: That’s an interesting definition, but mine is somewhat different. I see an abuse of power as an imbalance between the ability to make decisions and responsibility. As soon as an employee takes responsibility for a certain task or a certain area, they also have to be given the authority to make decisions for it. Otherwise, they have to take responsibility for decisions they don’t make themselves — and someone else, probably their boss, will make decisions without being made responsible for them.


In order to prevent people from abusing power, it should be evenly distributed based on individual responsibilities and competencies. I do think that culture is very important, having a good culture of feedback and recognizing errors enables you to counteract an abuse of power, as Christa’s example shows. As a manager, I need bold, clear — that is to say, mature — employees who can question my decisions and provide honest feedback to help me continue to develop as a leader, and become better.


Stephan: I share a lot of Christa’s and Hansjörg’s opinions. Here at Haufe-umantis, we have a very unique culture, but we still face the challenge of ensuring that power is not abused. As we are very heavily participatory as an organization, we always have self-regulation within teams. This is a key difference from more traditional top-down organizations which aren’t as transparent. Transparency is and remains one of the most important factors of self-regulation — and not just when it comes to power.

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