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Motivation for Power: Why Do People Want to Be in Charge?

How different motivations for power impact leadership and influence styles.

Key points

  • Some individuals seek power to have control over others, while others want to have more influence over their own lives.
  • Individuals may seek power over others due to fear or mistrust, which can motivate choosing coercive and antisocial strategies to control them.
  • In contrast, individuals seeking power for self-determination tend to aim toward prosocial leadership and cooperation instead.

Previously, I discussed the difference between harmful and helpful types of power. Put simply, hard styles of power can diminish self-determination, decreasing motivation and commitment. In contrast, soft styles of power have the opposite effect—increasing self-determination, motivation, and commitment.

That analysis left open two main questions, though. First, why do individuals seek to obtain power? Second, how do those motivations impact their choice of leadership and influence styles? Therefore, I went back to the research for answers...

Research on Motivations for Power

According to Cislak, Cichocka, Wojcik, and Frankowska (2018), individuals seek power and leadership positions for two reasons. On one hand, they may be motivated to obtain control over others, especially to influence their behavior. On the other hand, they might be motivated by personal control instead, particularly to increase their own self-determination and autonomy.

This difference echoes back to Mary Parker Follett's (1868-1933) earlier distinction between power over others (i.e., coercion) versus power with others (i.e., co-action) in management situations (Melé & Rosanas, 2003). Furthermore, much as Follett noted almost a century before, Cislak and associates (2018) also found that each type of motivation led to different leadership behaviors and outcomes. Those who sought power to control others tended to be aggressive and exploitative. Those who wanted more personal control over their own lives, however, were not aggressive or exploitative as leaders. Thus, power only seemed to be corrupting and negative for those who sought it to control other people in the first place.

Facing the Control-Trust Dilemma

Given the negative (and self-defeating) effects of pursuing power over others, why do people do it? The answer, quite simply, is because they are not trusting. As Das and Teng (2001) explain, making alliances with others is risky. You either have to trust that they are willing and able to cooperate (increasing everyone's self-determination and personal control), or you have to seek external controls over them to forcibly influence their motivation and behavior (decreasing everyone's self-determination instead). Put more poetically by Alm (2015), the choice is to build chains of trust that unite individuals in cooperation, or chains of control that enforce and coerce instead.

Furthermore, as Simpson (2007) explains, trust is a combination of interpersonal and dispositional factors. Therefore, someone may not trust in a particular context for interpersonal reasons (e.g., when a specific partner has already acted in a selfish or incompetent manner). In contrast, someone may not trust others in general for dispositional reasons (e.g., having insecure attachment or low self-esteem).

Given that, seeking temporary and limited control over someone else may be understandable, at specific times when they are clearly acting selfishly and breaking trust. Nevertheless, seeking power over others in general suggests dispositional issues instead. In such cases, those dispositional trust issues can lead to coercion, chains of control, and misery for all involved.

Understanding Evolved Leadership Styles

Reviewing these concepts from an evolutionary perspective, Gilbert and Basran (2019) note that humans have adapted to the risks of cooperation/competition with two general leadership styles. Some choose a prosocial leadership style, develop mutually-supportive relationships with others, share, enable them to perform, and cooperate. That strategy reduces stress, improves immune system function, and increases overall well-being (in both leader and followers). Essentially, this is the effect of a power-with-others strategy (soft power), which ultimately creates a win-win situation.

Others, however, choose an antisocial leadership style instead. These individuals tend to be more aggressive, sensitive to threats, and self-focused. They are also inclined to intimidate, threaten, and bully others to get their way. Unfortunately, that strategy results in stress and anxiety for the leader and followers, reducing motivation and well-being for everyone. This is the impact of relying solely on a power-over-others strategy (hard power), which ultimately results in a lose-lose situation for all involved.

Identifying Your Power-Striving Motivations

Given the above, if you are seeking power, or already in a leadership position, it may be of benefit to explore your own motivations. Are you interested in increasing your own autonomy and empowering others, or controlling them instead? Do you view others positively and see opportunities with them, or are you largely focused on others as threats to be mistrusted?

If you find yourself routinely focused on others in a distrustful and controlling way, then you may have some dispositional issues to explore. Specifically, you may want to consider whether attachment issues could be inhibiting your ability to trust others. Also, think about whether low self-esteem might be impacting your perception of relationships as well. You may find that working on those dispositional factors helps to improve your worldview, your leadership, and your own life.

Beyond that, if you find yourself struggling with such a negative mindset, I empathize and wish you well. I know that striving for power, because others have put you down or hurt you, seems like a solution for those problems. In part, as we see above, empowering yourself to have more control over your own life is helpful. Nevertheless, when distrust and resentment lead to desiring power over others, it backfires instead. Not only does it perpetuate negativity onto others, but it locks you into an anxious, frightened, and negative perspective too. By striving to control others, you simply stress yourself out, see threats and problems to manage everywhere, and reduce your own freedom and happiness too.

Fortunately, in many cases, you can be prosocial and use soft power instead. You can use your expertise to help guide others toward better decision-making. You can provide them with complete and clear information, giving them a fuller perspective on choices and decisions. You can also build positive relationships with them, increasing their motivation to be consistent with their commitments to you. That way, you can be more autonomous and satisfied yourself, increase the self-determination of others, and ensure that they are competent and motivated to cooperate with you—so you can trust them too.

© 2021 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Alm, K. (2015). Chains of trust or control? A stakeholder dilemma. Journal of Business Ethics Education, 12, 53-76.

Cislak, A., Cichocka, A., Wojcik, A. D., & Frankowska, N. (2018). Power corrupts, but control does not: What stands behind the effects of holding high positions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(6), 944–957.

Das, T. K., & Teng, B.-S. (2001). Trust, control, and risk in strategic alliances: An integrated framework. Organization Studies, 22(2), 251–283.

Gilbert, P., & Basran, J. (2019). The evolution of prosocial and antisocial competitive behavior and the emergence of prosocial and antisocial leadership styles. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 610.

Melé, D., & Rosanas, J. M. (2003). Power, freedom and authority in management: Mary Parker Follett’s ‘power-with’. Philosophy of Management, 3(2), 35-46.

Simpson, J. A. (2007). Psychological foundations of trust. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(5), 264–268.

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