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  • Tamar Balkin

Why do people in power often behave badly?

"Lord Acton writes to Bishop Creighton that the same moral standards should be applied to all men, political and religious leaders included, especially since “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (1887)"

Lord Acton


Regular readers would know I have blogged about :

  • Reducing rudeness (click here for my blog)

  • Manners (click here for my blog)

  • Incivility and inappropriate criticism (click here for my blog)

  • Ostracism (click here for my blog)

  • Healthy debate (click here for my blog)

  • Not being a bystander (click here for my blog)

Yet the headlines in Australia over the last few days highlighting incivility amongst leaders has prompted me write about the downside of power.

What is power?


"Power differences are an inherent feature of most organizations and relationships. "

Rodríguez-Bailón and Willis


Regular readers would be aware that power matters both at individual and group levels. Power is usually developed in social contexts, where individuals act together with others. At the group level, social power serves to achieve collective goals, facilitating coordination, problem solving, and decision making.

Researchers has identified the following negative aspects of power:

  • the use of stereotypes to perceive others

  • the devaluation of subordinates

  • decreases in perspective taking

  • increases in the objectification of other individuals

  • out-group discrimination

  • prejudice

  • exploitation.

Studies have found that power may also cause the prevalence of cynical beliefs that reduce thankfulness, reciprocity, trust and commitment to others.

So what can be done?


"The 360 survey has provided sufficient evidence for me to take serious action however, the CEO believes coaching can address the leader's rude behaviour towards colleagues, clients and staff"



My most rewarding coaching work comes from enabling my clients to identify the underlying causes of their inappropriate behaviour and in order to improve their self-awareness, emotional intelligence and general leadership capability.

In order to use the title organisation psychologist, I needed to demonstrate in my post Master’s Supervised practice the following two relevant competencies:

1. Working with people from diverse groups: Demonstrating the ability to competently and ethically practice with people who differ from the psychologist in ways including, but not limited to: differences in age, race, colour, culture, gender, geography, language, sexual orientation, educational attainment, and socio-economic status and religious-spiritual orientation. This includes sensitivity and knowledge of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

2. Practice across the lifespan: Competence in considering the needs of individuals and groups across different generations, including such issues as childcare, carer leave and designing family-friendly workplaces, the interaction styles of different generations, and the needs of people from different ages within the organisational context in which the psychologist is employed.

These competencies reflect the idea, that irrespective of the ‘diversity’ status of an individual, every person may exhibit appropriate and/or inappropriate behaviour. As an endorsed organisational psychologistI have an ethical responsibility to use my knowledge of psychology and organisations to promote organisational effectiveness and employee wellbeing with all clients.

Professionally I need to have unconditional positive regard for my clients, the belief that behaviour change is possible and if incivility is not addressed in one context it will continue to manifest elsewhere. This approach needs to be tempered by my responsibility that my clients do not cause harm to others, and the identification of client issues that are beyond the scope of my influence and expertise.

What does this mean in practice?

  • Belief that Self-awareness improves the likelihood of long-term behaviour change.

  • Awareness of my power and ensuring it is used appropriately

  • Acknowledgement of my personal biases and if necessary, politely refer my clients to a colleague who is more suitable

  • Maintain independence and confidentiality

  • Role model appropriate behaviour

  • Educate others that long term sustained behaviour change takes time and effort.

My client organisations need to address the following:

  • An assessment of the organisational culture to identify and rectify systemic factors

  • Organisational based programs need to be aligned with individual initiatives

  • Safeguards to be implemented to minimise the impact of poor behaviour on others.

  • Define the tolerance levels for inappropriate behaviour

  • Identification of proactive initiatives to improve workplace behaviour

What can you do today, irrespective of your formal position in an organisation?

  • Role model manners

  • Call out inappropriate behaviour

  • Ensure that there are corporate policies and procedures focused on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour

  • Create a culture that promotes kindness and respect

  • Address all forms of incivility

  • Provide feedback when people behave inappropriately

  • Do not tolerate Excuses for inappropriate behaviour

  • Recognise that shaming and embarrassing individuals who behave incivility is a hypocritical solution

Remember long term behavioural change is possible in many cases. The average individual is not inherently evil.

Final thoughts:

Regular readers would be aware that I am optimistic and thus its apt to remind you that with self-awareness power can actually change people for the better. The choice of course is yours (click here for my blog on the upside of leadership).

References: (n.d.). Psychology Board of Australia - Guidelines on area of practice endorsements. [online] Available at: Rodríguez-Bailón, R. and Willis, G.B. (2012). Power: Its Social Psychology. Revista de Psicología Social, 27(3), pp.287–292.

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