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  • Writer's pictureSusan & Renée

The Boundaries of Power

Updated: Jan 19


Something we do a lot of coaching on is how to navigate personal and professional boundaries in the workplace. Boundaries are the dividing lines that delineate how we interact with others. Healthy boundaries create safety and security. They guide us on how to behave and what to expect from each other.

 

One aspect of boundaries in the workplace is related to power differentials between workers and company leaders.

 

Where an individual sits in the hierarchical structure of the organization influences what they expect from others and what others expect from them. Bosses, for example, get to decide all manner of a person’s life including when they can work, when they can be off, how they prioritize tasks and how they are evaluated on their performance. Clear expectations, such as these, provide the necessary structure that helps the company function smoothly.

 

Problems, however, can arise when leaders are unaware of the effect that their behavior has on others simply because of their higher rank.

 

Think about what happens when a staff member has an emotional explosion at work. The employee may be counseled, reprimanded or disciplined. The message sent is clear: This behavior jeopardizes company goals and will not be tolerated.

 

But what if the boss is the owner of the company and loses her cool? The same behavior will be dealt with very differently. Most likely the leader will not face direct consequences. It may even be assumed that she is entitled to express herself freely without regard for how it impacts others. The message sent is: Do what the boss wants and don’t make her mad, company goals be damned.

 

Power dynamics in the workplace are complicated by the fact that employees bring their personal history into their relationship with their current boss. Past experiences with parents and previous bosses may be unconsciously transferred to the current situation even when the dynamic is completely different. Just interacting with someone in authority can be enough to  open past wounds and trigger old feelings.

 

Leaders are responsible for how power dynamics impact company culture. According to professionals at Nash Consulting, leaders mismanage their power when they exaggerate the power differentials or, conversely, try to eliminate them.

 

The following behaviors are ways that leaders exaggerate their authority over employees. These behaviors stifle innovation and make employees feel they must walk on eggshells.

  • Using sarcasm or speaking in tones that reveal anger or frustration.

  • Not asking for input when making decisions or holding on to information that could be helpful.

  • Saying “no,” without providing reason.

  • Being unavailable or unapproachable.

  • Interrupting, ignoring or responding defensively.

  • Not following their own rules.


Equally damaging to company culture is when leaders attempt to eliminate the power differential between themselves and their staff. This approach creates a lack of structure which results in confusion, stress and inefficiencies. It includes behaviors such as:

  • Not holding people accountable for problematic behaviors.

  • Focusing on being liked or being friends with subordinates.

  • Disparaging other leaders or speaking negatively about the company to employees.

  • Indecision or too much emphasis on making decisions by consensus.

  • Not being clear about expectations. 


Attentive management to the inherent power differentials in the workplace is a pillar of healthy company culture. Rather than exaggerating their power or trying to eliminate it, leaders need to learn to create appropriate boundaries with their employees while also creating a healthy work environment. 


In our next blog, we’ll give you some tips on how to do this.


Image by GRStocks from Unsplash

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