Reality Check: Power and Embarrassment

Fear of embarrassment is powerful. Some folks will do almost anything to avoid feeling embarrassed. Why?

According to choice theory, among the basic needs that we all share is a need for power; that is, to be respected and valued. Some of the responses we choose may depend on how well that power need is being satisfied.

For example, you’re doing a task at work and your co-worker tells you, “You’re doing that wrong.” If your power need is generally satisfied,

you may accept the information as just that—information, and respond with, “Oh. Show me how to do it right, then.”

However, if you have a generally unsatisfied power need, you might perceive the comment as disrespectful. You might argue, get angry or resentful. If the co-worker’s intent was just to help you out, they may think, “Wow. I’m never going to try to help you again.”

As we make our choices in life about how to treat people, it can be really helpful to understand the effects of this universal need for power in ourselves and in others.

Minnie has been promoted and is now Mickey’s supervisor. Mickey, who had also applied for the supervisor’s job, is not happy. Since the promotion, Mickey has taken every opportunity to try to make Minnie look bad in the eyes of the team. So far, it hasn’t worked; he has only demonstrated his talent for pettiness.

Still, it’s difficult for Minnie.

Now, Minnie has an opportunity to put that arrogant troublemaker in his place. Mickey made a mistake. He forgot an important procedure, he knew better, and it has cost the company money.

Minnie realizes that it was an understandable human error. Had someone else done it, Minnie would be empathetic. But it was Mickey, and she’s thinking, “I could really embarrass him by pointing out the truth in front of everybody—he messed up. That would show him who’s boss.”

Or would it?

Minnie has a choice. She can try to embarrass Mickey, or she can let it go.

You could view this choice from the perspective of the golden rule. If Minnie was in Mickey’s place, what would she rather have happen?

If that’s too touchy-feely for you and you don’t think it applies to the “real world,” then try this perspective. Which action will be more effective toward getting Minnie what she wants—a cooperative, productive team?

If she chooses to advertise Mickey’s mistake, she’ll satisfy her power need momentarily. He looks bad; she gets a moment’s self-satisfaction.

And, she gains an enemy who will do whatever he can to satisfy his power need at her expense.

If, instead, she chooses to avoid blaming Mickey when she discusses the incident, Mickey will know. Will he appreciate her discretion? There’s no guarantee that he will. But he might.

Minnie can only control what she does. While it could be temporarily satisfying to create a potentially embarrassing scene for Mickey, choosing a more empathetic (and professional) response could be even more satisfying for Minnie in the long run.

How important is the need for power to you? Do you see its effects in others?

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