Responsibility, control and power

  • What do ‘power’, ‘control’ and ‘responsibility’ look like to you?

I’ve been watching my kids and the people around me, as well as myself, and wondering what the relationship is between these words.  I started off looking at it from a family perspective and then got to thinking about it at work and it strikes me that people easily confuse on with the other.

Being responsible is defined as ‘having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role’ and ‘being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it’

Responsibility is defined as ‘the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone’ and ‘the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.’

Control is defined as ‘the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events’ and ‘determine the behaviour or supervise the running of’

Power is defined as ‘the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way’ and ‘the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events’

  • How are they different?
  • Think about the different aspects of your life and when you are powerful, controlling and responsible

The definitions over lap and I still don’t find them clear enough.  I can see that responsibility has a level of accountability that the power and control don’t have (but surely it is implicit?) and control and responsibility seem linked to a role eg as parent or worker.

All three words have an interior and exterior locus.  Responsibility for others as well as responsibility for myself and my actions, thoughts and feelings.  Control over external people and events and then self-control. Power over people and within settings and empowerment; an internal sense of power and efficacy.

It seems to me that all three internal loci are positive. Self-control, empowerment and personal responsibility are the way that we make sure we are living up to our own aspirations, values and aspirations.  When we have these three attributes the external world has less of an impact on us.

  • How is your self-control? Are there areas that you wish you had more self-control in?
  • How empowered are you in the different areas of your life? How can you boost your sense of personal power?
  • How good are you at taking responsibility for your own actions, thoughts, feelings and behaviours?

Responsibility for others – can it ever be bad? Well I guess it can be if we are taking responsibility for things and people which we either are not responsible for or that we are not empowered to be responsible for.  For example, if I take the blame for something I didn’t do, that might not be helpful. Or if I am left to be responsible for a Komodo dragon then I have no idea how to look after it, so even though I had been made responsible, I wouldn’t have the resources to be responsible.

  • Do you ever take responsibility for things that you shouldn’t? 

Control over others– Can this ever be good?  Yes. If there is a fire and I’m teaching I have the right to be, and need to be really bossy to make sure that everyone leaves my room and goes to the meeting point safely.  When my kids were young I was able to control what they ate and drunk and what they wore and I did that with their best interests in my heart.  In fact if I had left them to be in control of what they ate when they were little they might have poisoned themselves.  So control over others has it’s uses.

However, I think control over adults, most of the time, is pointless as it implies that we are making people do something they wouldn’t otherwise do and why would we want them to do that?  Of course it can make us feel very important and ‘in control’ when we try to take control, but my experience of it is that at mostly comes from a position of that person feeling out of control and so fearful.

Just the very words ‘control over’ implies that the controller thinks they are in some way above the controlled, more important, more ‘right’, more intelligent, experienced, qualified.  And some of that may be true.  I am more qualified than some people but a fat lot of good that does me if they are not interested in what I might know, and I can’t make them want to listen to me.

  • In which areas of your life do you control adults?
  • Do  you need to be in control?
  • What would happen if you weren’t controlling?

Ditto power.  Power over people I think is less overt than control. Control is often signified by tone of voice, commands, directions, body language. Power can be more subtle. We can exert power without the other person knowing it. persuasion, manipulation, undermining, charming are all ways in which we gain power.  Hitler had power to influence people and those people were the agents of control..he didn’t have to turn on the gas himself, he had people who controlled that whilst he had power over them.

Can power over people ever be good?  Martin Luther King, Anita Rodick.  Both of them in entirely different ways changed behaviours by taking a powerful idea and adding their own personal power to it.  But is this power over people or is this personal power and empowerment manifesting in the world?  I think so.

  • Who do you know who is a positive powerful role model?
  • How do they lead people?
  • What is it about how they treat people?

Then I started to think about combinations:

Power and responsibility means that you have the means to act on something and you are able to take responsibility for the consequences, even better if the action you take is responsible in that it looks after the greater good.

Powerful responsibility is different from responsible power. Powerful responsibility is less all encompassing. For example the lollipop person who helps the kids cross the road has the power to save lives, but it doesn’t extend beyond the 45 minutes at the start and end of the school day.

Responsible power is hopefully what the likes of Obama feel and that I wonder if Mother Teresa felt.  Their actions effect/ed the lives of many people and so they had/have to use this power responsibly.  We as parents have the power of life and death over our infants, they need us to survive and most of us use our power responsibly.

Power without responsibility – not good. Either because you’re got power but no remit to exert it or because you are exerting it but irresponsibly.

Irresponsible power has been seen through history. Henry VIII beheading wives because he could, parents who abuse their kids because they can, bosses who bully staff because staff have no one to go to complain, big kids who bully little kids, corporates who put  profit before the safety of their workers or the environment, religions which cover up systematic abuse, newspapers which bug phones…the list is endless.

  • How do you use your power responsibly?
  • Do you ever use your power irresponsibly?
  • What could  you do differently?

Control without power – I think this is possible.  The kind of nagging micro-management we’ve all come across where the control comes from a sense of powerlessness where people try to control the outside world because inside they feel out of control and powerless.  The more threatened the controller is, the more controlling they become.

Power without control – I think yes this possible.  I have worked for some powerful leaders and when I think about the ones who were the most impactful with their power, they were the ones who were least controlling.  There is a great power in trusting people to do what they are capable and able to do and to give them responsibility for doing that.

  • Are you ever controlling when you feel powerless?

Control without responsibility – I see this behaviour as I look around me.  This is when the controller wants to control and tries to, but at the end of the day, the control works or doesn’t the controller sees this as down to the person being controlled and is therefore not the responsibility of the controller. To give you an illustration, you sometimes see parents who tell their kids to do something (control) but then when the kids don’t, the parents blame the kids rather than taking some responsibility for the child’s response.  I have a clear memory of doing this once when Eldest Son was toddling.  I told him to put his coat on as it was cold, but he refused, as toddlers do.  So rather than following through and being the responsible adult, I let him go to the park without a coat on and then complained when within minutes he was cold and wanted to come home.

Irresponsible control is when we force people to do irresponsible things..I can’t think of any real life examples but I did watch ‘The Help’ over Christmas where one racist woman tries to use her social status to control an old school friend to write about her racist sanitation policy by threatening her.

Responsible control is the kind of control we use when we put our kids in car seats of when we strap them into their buggies even when they are screaming and arching their backs we know that for their own safety they need to be strapped in and so in controlling them we are taking responsibility for their safety when they can not.

  • When do you use these kinds of control?
  • Would you like to change anything?

So when I think about myself I see that sometimes when the kids are getting hyper I shout at them as a way of controlling when I feel disempowered. I also see that I sometimes take responsibility when I don’t need to. These are things I’m going to pay attention to and do differently.

  • What would you like to pay attention to and do differently?
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