Here’s another continuum: I call this the misuse/abuse continuum. In our trainings we sometimes refer to harmful actions as misuses of power and sometimes abuses of power. There is a difference.
Power: Misuses and Abuses
Misuses of power are generally committed by good people with good intentions, and power blind-spots. They cause harm, yes. They hurt, yes. And the harm is not usually egregious. They happen very frequently, yes. Micro-aggressions would be in this category, for example. The good news is that they can be relatively easy to repair, especially when there is already trust in the relationship. The hurt person will usually respond well to an effective apology. We can learn from these. We can self-reflect and self-correct. Repair may even lead to a deeper, clearer, and more trusting relationship.
On the other end of the scale of harm, are abuses of power. As compared to misuses of power these are the actions that cause terrible harm. They are motivated by some combination of control needs, egotism, greed, self-preservation, fear, and reduced empathy. They may also be the result of following the “dominator model” of power, genuine power blind-spots, lack of truthful feedback from those in down-power positions, inability to observe or care about their impact, and little education about the dynamics and perils of power.
We mention the difference between misuse and abuse of power because in responding to harm, people often conflate or fail to distinguish between misuses and abuses of power. When power abuse comes from someone we revere, we sometimes make excuses or cognitive justifications or just make light of it. On the other hand, when power is misused by someone we revere, we sometimes unfairly blow it up to the level of abuse.
In this age of easy transmission of information through the internet, situations can escalate at the level of an explosion leading to polarization, increasing misinformation, and devastating cancel culture processes. Misuses can be labeled abuses. Abuses can get too easily excused. Accuracy and authenticity get lost.
Misuse seen as abuse or abuse seen as misuse is crazy-making and unjust. It contributes to community distress and misunderstanding. Use your awareness and your personal and role power-as- influence to actively help clarify and de-escalate when you can.