Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger Ph.D.

The Workaholics

Workaholism and Power

Why does the ambition to gain power often lead to immoral /unethical decisions?

Posted Jul 05, 2013

Workaholism and Power

As Lord Acton warns in his letter to Bishop Creighton in 1877, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (1) As we listen to the misuse of power stories in the daily news and try to understand why this happens, it is wise to know more about the dynamics involved that lead to this outcome. Power can be used for good or evil, but an excess of power when it is combined with a growing arrogance, self-serving narcissistic entitlement, and other contributing factors should warn us of trouble ahead.


Power is the seductive mistress that lures workaholics whose obsessive and compulsive focus is increasingly on work related goals that take them away from personal and professional responsibilities to family, friends, colleagues and staff. The acquisition of money and worldly goods can be a showcase of power and influence, or the individual may chose a more private lifestyle to avoid the envy or resentment of others.  

Some Controller-type workaholics display their wealth by buying big houses, fancy cars, frequenting prestigious clubs, and sending their children to exclusive schools. Other more cautious conservative Pleaser-types preserve their carefully crafted “humble” persona by refraining from outward displays of wealth. Their ordinary cars, casual but studied dress belie the importance they attach to power. They secretly want others to feel sorry for them because of their long hours and dedication, but not to be envious of their accomplishments. Approval and acceptance by others are very important to Pleasers. They save for a rainy day, and carefully oversee how other family members should spend, and on what.

The power of greed arises out of the aggressive instinct. It is fed by ambition, perfectionism, competition, anger and shame. Its language reflects its focus on strategies, tactics, manipulation, gamesmanship, and exploitation.  Greed fuels the need for personal control, but also fosters the desire to control other people, objects, organizations, and even whole industries. It revels in the power struggles that ensue as resistance builds to block overly ambitious goals and domination in a chosen field of endeavor.

In contrast, power coupled with love has infinite possibilities for good. Love is the opposite of work in all aspects, says Jay Rohrlich (2) Fed by the nurturing and sexual instincts, love is expansive, present-oriented, and apprehended by all four senses. Love encourages empathy, compassion, generosity, goodwill, and compromise. Its language is appreciation, support, enthusiasm, and sharing.

Competition and compassion are like oil and water, they do not mix. Compassion does not deal in winners and losers. It doesn’t isolate, separate, or estrange. Competition can be constructive and creative, but it becomes destructive when one constantly needs to measure oneself against another to come out ahead, or it is motivated by a desire to punish others in order to vindicate one’s own self-worth.

Recovery comes to the workaholic when the power of love and compassion wins out over the power of greed-driven, self-serving, self-centered thoughts and subsequent actions. Only through gaining insight and wisdom, and exercising his or her compassion will the workaholic be able to ensure that personal and professional power is used for good, not evil.

“How can I recover from workaholism?” is a frequently asked question. This journey is a long and difficult struggle that begins when the right-brain Feeling function, its values, language, and behavior are restored to consciousness. Only then will the workaholic be able to use compassionate Feeling to monitor and shape the input that the left-brain Thinking information provides to make both wise and intelligent decisions that fully consider the welfare and impact on others. It is also an opportunity for workaholics to restore their own integrity. (3)

Future blogs will be focused on the journey that I take my workaholic clients and their partners through to help them re-establish the inner balance necessary to be well enough to complete this often difficult task. (4) The goal is to achieve a work-life balance that is both healthy and restorative. It is important that the damage done to others be addressed, and that attempts be made to learn to be fully present, nurturing and supportive. This will necessitate a change in values and priorities.


(1) Acton, Lord J. Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1877. In Familiar Quotations, edited by J. Bartlett, 663. 13th ed. Boston: Little Brown, 1955.

(2) Rohrlich, J. Work and Love: The Crucial Balance. New York: Harmony, 1980.

(3) Killinger, B. Integrity. Doing the Right Thing For the Right Reason. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007 and 2010.

(4) Killinger, B. Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 2011.


Copyright 2013  Dr. Barbara Killinger