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Emotionally Intelligent Power: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Emotional intelligence is about the ability to navigate interpersonal relationships constructively. In my latest book I describe the three dimensions of the interpersonal world: Power, Heart and Mindfulness. When we find that dynamic balance or “synergy” between all three (in their positive mode) we find emotional intelligence and optimal human functioning. And when we don’t have that balance, we get disharmony and human dysfunction. This is never so true as when it comes to the Power dimension.

Power can be good. When balanced with high quality Heart (or love) and Mindfulness (or knowing), Power can make good things happen. The person who is using Power in a positive way will feel a sense of agency and self-efficacy in their world (an antidote for depression). They set appropriate boundaries, ask for what they need without trampling others and protect themselves (and others) from harm. A person in positive Power mode will tell the truth as they see it with consideration for how others may hear it. They are confident, clear and unapologetic for what they know to be right (but have the guts to apologize when they find they are wrong). They are not afraid to compete; they aim to win. Good power is good.

Power can also be bad, and at times downright ugly—when it is operating in negative mode. We need only read the news of the week. You will find societal blights like political corruption; people cheating, lying, and hurting others to get what they want; bullying (whether in the classroom or the boardroom). You’ll find it in everyday narcissism, racism, sexism, and all the other “isms.” Power gets ugly when we do horrific things to each other (think Nazis, Armenian holocaust, slavery, Isis, and power-hungry dictators who destroy their enemies rather then negotiate with them).

What is it that makes Power bad (on a small scale) and ugly (on a larger scale)? Power goes bad when we lose the impact of either (or both) of the other two dimensions, Heart or Mindfulness. Without Heart we do things without any concern or regard for others. We lack empathy and compassion. For example, we’ll endorse a tax cut that will benefit us (even though we may be wealthy enough as is) despite that it may mean cutting back on basic services that will help the less fortunate. We ask self-serving questions like: “Why should I pay for services I don’t use?” Power also goes bad when there is a lack in the Mindfulness dimension. Mindfulness is the keel that keeps the human boat stable. Without mindfulness, we act without adequate self-control and perspective. We are impatient, urgent and impulsive. We don’t think through what we say or do.

I use this model in leadership training and executive coaching. It’s not uncommon to find executives who predominately move in the negative Power dimension. They are impulsive, impatient (not adept at practicing mindfulness), lack empathy and never admit to a mistake or ask for help (no Heart). They might be intellectually smart but they lack emotional intelligence. I help them increase their emotional intelligence by helping them turn their negative Power into positive Power, and we do that by coaching them in attitudes and behaviors found in the Heart or Mindfulness dimensions.

There are many areas where this course correction sorely needs to be applied in society, such as in politics, which is overrun with the power-hungry; marriages, where there may be a narcissistic or controlling spouse; and in workplaces with bossy bosses. Even those who have actively sworn to use their power to protect and serve the public are not immune.

Instances of police brutality, for instance, have gained notoriety in recent years (thanks in part to the ease of video recording via our phones). In some cases, even unarmed or submissive “suspects” have been killed in the heat of the moment. When emotions are strong and the perception of danger is presumed (in some instances, perhaps, influenced by implicit racial biases), a law-enforcement officer may find himself taking drastic action, often resulting in unnecessary harm to an individual, and even death. In moments such as these, the Power dimension takes over, shutting out any inner voices from the Heart or Mindfulness dimensions. Without the impact of Heart and Mindfulness, impulses from the Power dimension can easily become bad and escalate to ugly. In these cases the officer is less likely to use empathy (from the Heart dimension) to connect with the suspect as a human being (which might have led to a de-escalation averting any need to use force). And they are less likely to remain calm enough to accurately assess the situation and weed out actual threats from false or imagined threats. This latter capacity comes from the Mindfulness dimension.

Just as we train executives to be more emotionally intelligent in the workplace, it behooves us to train our valued law enforcement personnel. Training needs to go beyond cultural sensitivity because in the moment of a high-intensity encounter the emotional brain—or limbic system—takes over. Emotional intelligence (and especially mindfulness) training helps us learn to over-ride our emotional reactions leaving room to take constructive actions. When Power is corrected by Heart and Mindfulness, we activate the positive side of power—we can use it for good. It aligns with reality; it is truly and optimally effective with the least amount of damage.

So whether you are an officer in a high-crisis situation, a parent addressing a teenager who arrived home two hours after curfew, or an executive who encounters an employee who is under-performing, we can always improve the quality of the Power dimension by integrating it with appropriate attitudes and behaviors from the Heart and Mindfulness dimensions.

Make no mistake: the ability to manipulate others emotionally is not emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence operates from a balance achieved from working in the positive mode of each of the three dimensions: Power, Heart and Mindfulness.