The Power of Culture to Promote Healthy Power


“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”

– William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778


Harassment at work is about power. Who has it and who doesn’t. How those who have it may wield it to make those who do not have it feel vulnerable, weak, and docile. How unchecked power can become a mechanism for control and domination. How we doubt our power to draw and defend lines, and the role of culture to feed power plays or promote healthy empowerment.

It’s about power.

So, let’s dig into power.

A 2016 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored which form of power is the most satisfying – power as influence (control over others) or as autonomy (ability to shape our destiny and resist influence of others). The researchers, from the University of Cologne, the University of Groningen, and Columbia University, conducted three studies to assess if having autonomy was enough. They concluded, “Autonomy quenches the desire for additional power—but influence does not (or much less)…these studies offer evidence that people desire power not to be a master over others, but to be master of their own domain, to control their own fate.”

Power without autonomy isn’t satisfying, and just makes us want more and more. Leading, potentially, to abuse and exploitation.

According to Self-Determination Theory, a theory of motivation and personality, autonomy doesn’t just satisfy our desire for power – it’s a compelling innate psychological need, along with competence and psychological relatedness.

  • Competence – our need to be effective in managing our environment – we want to know how things will turn out and the results of our actions.
  • Relatedness – our need to “interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for other people” – to feel that sense of belonging.
  • Autonomy – our need to be “causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self” – basically, to steer our own boat.

If these needs are met, we function and grow optimally – we unleash our human potential. If not…well, let’s not go there.

So, let’s connect the dots and bring it back to workplace harassment – and what culture has to do with it.

  • Point – harassment is less about sex and more about power.
  • Point – research suggests we seek power not to influence others but to achieve autonomy, and that if we don’t have autonomy we will seek greater power.
  • Point – autonomy is a core psychological need that, if satisfied along with competence and relatedness, promotes wellbeing, optimal development, and greater happiness. Oh, and increased performance and creativity.
  • Proposal – create and nurture cultures that support autonomy (and our psychological needs), and we will reduce the cravings for and potential abuse of power.

Now this may not eliminate the rogue abuser, but determining how effectively your organization’s culture addresses human needs is more productive and ultimately more effective than rolling out more online harassment training.

“Coaching cultures” are the ideal place to start. They are built on a foundation of trust, feedback, communication, continuous learning and curiosity, and psychological safety, or the shared belief that the organization “is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Assess your culture by asking your people:

  • When do you feel safe to give feedback?
  • How often do you receive feedback from your peers? Managers?
    How often do you give feedback to your peers? Managers?
  • How do you challenge processes? What reaction do you receive when you do?
  • What risks do you take at work? What is the result?
  • How do you steer your own ship at work?
  • What kind of control do you have over your day-to-day work?
  • How do you bring your “whole self” to work? When do struggle with this?

While unlimited power may have dangerous consequences, we crave enough power at work to be ourselves, shape our paths, and ensure our psychological needs are met.

Empowering humans to achieve their full potential – isn’t this the ultimate purpose of a human-centered workplace?


Tina is the CEO of WorkJoy, creating happier places to work and future-ready workforces from the inside out – through personalized coaching and training solutions tailored to each organization’s unique culture, structure, and dynamics. When not running a business, coaching, facilitating, or teaching, Tina enjoys the beaches of Los Angeles and trying to tame her two pet parrots.

Photo by Kendall Carter on Unsplash