Mapping the Power Differential

NOT power OVER, but power WITH! How often have you heard this phrase, almost a chant, seeming to clarify, simplify, and resolve issues about power with just these six words. I’d like to invite you to look deeper.

From my perspective, there are two significant ways to misuse professional and personal power: over-using it and under-using it. In my Right Use of Power programs, I ask people, literally, to line up on a continuum based on their own assessment of where they tend to find themselves, One extreme end of the continuum is overuse of power and the other extreme end is underuse of power. The most egregious abuses of power occur at the extremes. By “over-use” I mean exploitation, domination, discrimination, physical abuse, and disempowerment. By “under-use”, I mean neglect, abandonment, naivete, undersight, failure to take charge, passivity, and avoidance.

Professionally, what we want and need to enable us to use our role power skillfully and sensitively is to be competent within a range on the continuum of under- and over-use that is appropriate to each situation and to each client. To increase this health and effective range, we need to understand power in a complex way. The sentence “Not power over, but power with,” contains, I believe, several common misinterpretations. By implication and common understanding, “power over” means over-use of power on the extreme end of the continuum where, indeed, great harm is caused. “Power with” seems by common understanding to mean that being equals and using power together, there is not longer a power differential and no harm will be caused. From my perspective, this idea of “power with” actually contributes to harmful misuses of power from the under-use extreme of the continuum.

As a professional, you use your unique combination of role power and personal power. Role power is the enhanced power that automatically accompanies your role. As a professional, you do have some kinds of “power over”. For example: you may have the power to hire and fire, evaluate results and performance, promote or downgrade, assign grades or tasks, treat symptoms, require compliance, maintain boundaries. You are up-power to your students, clients, employees, patients. Their health, effectiveness, and well-being actually depends upon your owning and using your role power. You can do “power over” in a way that causes great harm (a psychotherapy gets sexually involved with his or her client; a teacher shames a student; a doctor doesn’t listen to his or her patient’s inner sense) or you can do it with sensitivity, responsibility, and heartfulness. The important thing is to understand and own your role power rather than failing to acknowledge it and thus ending up causing harm by under-using your power.

You also have opportunities for exercising “power with” through collaborating and asking for, responding to feedback, and holding the big picture. Again, you can do “power with” in a way that causes harm (a psychotherapy has exploitive dual relationships; a teacher has an out of control classroom; a doctor conducts unnecessary tests) or in a way that empowers those “down power” to you through warmth, collaboration, acknowledgment, and providing clear and helpful feedback. The vital thing is neither to exaggerate nor to avoid professional role power, but to expand your self-awareness and your range of responses so that you can respond appropriately, sensitively, and skillfully.

Following is a chart that maps out this territory. I hope you will find it helpful. The triangles on the right hand side in the middle represent the range of responses that are right uses of power.  Right uses of power are actions and attitudes that repair harm, prevent harm, and promote the common good. The necessary foundation of right use of power is your ability to bring together power and heart. In our discussion that would be bringing together the best of power over and the best of power with, moving sometimes toward more taking charge and sometimes toward more collaboration., always owning the special power and responsibilities that accompany your professional position.

The arrows at the very center point indicate movement that we can help facilitate. Starting with the arrow originating in the top right quadrant, we can use our power to assist those down power to us to move over to the bottom right quadrant where they are learning to be more empowered and successful in their down power role. In fact, that’s one of the responsibilities of using role power well. Beginning in the bottom right quadrants, when we are in the down power role (and all of us have those roles too), we can, from the empowered right hand quadrant, take skillful action to help those who are up power to us to move over to the upper right quadrant and begin to use their power with more sensitivity.

Stand in your Power, Stay in your Heart.

© Copyright 2011 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Yvonne Sinclair M.A., MFCC

    January 24th, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    Thanks for sharing this. It is a new way of thinking about power for me. I always teach you have no control over anything but yourself. Using power inappropriately would push the limit of “control” over another person. Gives me a lot to think about.

  • Doug

    January 24th, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    Treating somebody in a bad way can mean not just being pathetic but can also give room for legal action against you. Not exercising your power can mean you being taken for a ride or are being duped. So if you ask me the way to go about things I’d just say that you need to exercise you power win confidence but at the same time have respect for others’ rights. This is bound to I’ve positive results and prevent any power-related conflict.

  • Opal

    January 24th, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    @Doug: Indeed. And if you are in a position where you have the power to end workplace harassment, you have to do it or else you’ll be held responsible as well as your company. If a worker says ” Mr. Jones is harassing me”, and nothing is done, you’ll very quickly lose your job when their lawyer starts calling threatening a lawsuit and the inaction comes to light. And it would be no less than what you deserved.

  • margie

    January 24th, 2011 at 6:54 PM

    If you have been given a mantle of power in your career, you have it for a reason. It’s a heavy responsibility. You are entrusted with it by your employers because of your personal and professional qualities. If you go too far and abuse that power, then whoever gave it will either strip you of it by demoting you, or fire you. Think about how that would look on your resume before being tempted to do so.

  • Rosalyn Thomas

    January 25th, 2011 at 3:51 AM

    We are speaking of the power equation that most of us experience on a daily basis at the work place.And I;m sure all of us agree that the over-use of power is a very wrong thing to do.But what about the big players?heads of large corporations and politicians who are hand-in-glove?They abuse their power all the time and get away with it.This kind of getting away with it is what encourages the small group of people who even think it is okay to over-use their power.

  • Dale H

    January 25th, 2011 at 5:37 AM

    There is such a fine line that you have to walk as a professional who is in charge of a group of employees. Of course you would want everyone to like you but that is never going to be the reality of any situation. So should you just go ahead and be over bearing and get the job done? Or do you go so far in the other direction, allowing employees to do what they will and risk the loss of any respect that they have for you as a boss as well as risk the reputation and quality of your services? Very fine line and only the good ones are able to find that perfect balance.

  • Cedar Barstow

    January 27th, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    Good discussion here. As Dale says, the line separating under and over use of power from appropriate and effective use of power is very thin. This is where, because situations are not always black and white, sensitivity and skill are very important. Sensitivity and skill should be built on a foundation of intention: to prevent harm, repair harm, and promote well being and the common good. People are always asking me about the “big players” that you mention, Rosalyn. In a way, we are so used to abuse of power by the big players, that we, unfortunately, can just accept it as the way it is, and therefore not put any effort into changing it. Admittedly, it’s hard for little guys to change big guys unless we work together in a big way, but there are usually little local situations that we can be effective in helping move the little big guys over to the right side of the power differential map. I’d love to hear of your successes. Cedar

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