Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

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

How different motivations for power impact leadership and influence styles.

Persuasion, Bias, and Choice by Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D.



  • 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.




Here are some Awesome Pointers in Deciding Whether to Follow the Crowd

Given the above, when making a decision, it is important to consider whether following others is a good idea — or is leading you astray instead. Some simple steps can help you figure it out.

1. Stop and think. Getting swept away by what everyone else is doing is often an emotional and thoughtless process. We are conforming simply because we have not given sufficient attention and effort toward considering any other options. Nevertheless, when making many decisions, there is usually time to stop and think about the options more carefully. Therefore, unless you are in an emergency situation and need to immediately follow everyone else toward the nearest exit, it might be a good idea to switch to more deliberate thinking processes, rather than just going with your initial reaction.

2. Look at all the information. As noted above, we tend to look for the opinion of others when we are uncertain, when we do not have sufficient information to make a decision, and when the choices are unclear to us. Nevertheless, more objective facts, statistics, measurements, and evaluations are also sources of potential decision-making information — as are our own perceptions, personal needs, and morals and values. Therefore, in addition to what other people are doing, consider those objective and individual sources of information too. Quite frankly, if factual information indicates that a choice is not good, and it is bad for you personally, then following the crowd is not a good idea. After all, as mothers used to say, “Just because everyone else jumps off a bridge, doesn’t mean you should too.”

3. Consider the specific situation. Some choices and decision-making situations are more individual, while others are more social. Similarly, sometimes our goals are better served by fitting in with the group, while on other occasions going it alone might be more successful. Overall, we’re often balancing between what is best for ourselves and what is best for others too — with individual decisions leaning one way or the other. Therefore, it is important to consider the specific situation. Is this an individual choice, or does it involve others? Do you need group support for a particular goal, or can you achieve it on your own? If you have sufficient information to make a clear choice on your own, and you do not need group approval, then you might want to make up your own mind. If you are personally unsure, or you need the support of others to make something happen, then taking the opinion of others into consideration might be a good idea instead.

4. Seek out multiple perspectives. A one-sided way of looking at things often leads to biased and poor decision-making. Therefore, it is generally a good idea to evaluate your choices and decisions from multiple perspectives. The same is true for following the opinion of others too. Although it might not feel that way at times, especially in the modern day of media coverage and social networking, “everyone” is not doing it — whatever “it” is that you are considering. Given that, before you follow the advice or choices of any particular group of people, it might be a good idea to look at what other groups of people are doing or choosing too (especially if they are going in the opposite direction). In fact, we can often learn more from people making choices contrary to ourselves or our preferred group, particularly about potential down-sides to choices we might not be seeing. Therefore, if you do need to look to others to help provide information regarding a particular choice or decision, then it might help to seek out people with a few different opinions, weigh your options among them, and figure out what will work best for you.


When making a decision, it is a common impulse to look and see what others are doing. Nevertheless, it is often unclear whether the path that everyone else may be following is good for us as well. After all, sometimes following the crowd has merit — at other times, it is simply peer pressure blinding us.

The phenomenon of looking to others and following the crowd has been studied by social science for a long time. Nevertheless, those findings do not always make their way to individual decision-makers. Therefore, let’s review why people conform to the crowd — and under what conditions it is a good idea to go your own way instead

Research on Social Norms, Conformity, and Following Others

To start, individuals tend to look to the opinions of others, especially when they are unsure and lack information from other sources. This dynamic was supported by classic research from Sherif (1937), who explored how a person’s perception of a very ambiguous stimuli can be influenced by the opinion of others. Sherif (1937) asked participants to watch a small light in a dark and featureless room and evaluate how much that light moved around. In actuality, however, the light never moved at all — but the way our perception works in that situation gives the possible illusion of movement (called the Autokinetic Effect). In this uncertain and ambiguous perceptual situation, Sherif (1937) found that individuals were quite susceptible to the influence of the opinions of others when trying to decide how much the light was “moving.” This was particularly true when those others claimed to be more certain of their opinions too.

Unfortunately, this effect doesn’t just end with ambiguous and uncertain situations. It also extends to individuals following the crowd, even when they can clearly see that others are wrong. This was first evaluated by Asch (1955), who asked participants to pick a line from a few choices of varying lengths that matched up with another example line given to them. From a perceptual standpoint, the task was easy — as the correct choice of which lines were actually similar to one another was clear. Nevertheless, when participants were surrounded by other individuals giving the wrong answer, they often conformed and made the wrong choice as well. Thus, even when the correct choice is clear, and what others are doing is wrong, that peer pressure can still cause us to doubt ourselves and follow the crowd.

Why is it that we are so compelled to follow the crowd, even when it is objectively clear that they are wrong? According to more recent research, we may simply be wired that way. Specifically, these social influences can actually change our perceptions and memories (Edelson, Sharot, Dolan, & Dudai, 2011). Therefore, rather than knowingly making the wrong choice just to conform to peer pressure, the influence of others may actually change what we see as the correct choice in the moment and remember as the right thing after the fact. Beyond that, we might just have “herding brains” with built-in components that monitor our social alignments and make us feel good when we follow the crowd too (Shamay-Tsoory, Saporta, Marton-Alper, & Gvirts, 2019).

Fortunately, this effect has good points as well. In many cases, group decision-making can help individuals look beyond their own private perspectives and make more rational decisions (Fahr & Irlenbusch, 2011). Furthermore, pro-social and altruistic behaviors can be influenced and shared through such conformity as well (Nook, Ong, Morelli, Mitchell, & Zaki, 2016). Therefore, sometimes following the crowd helps people get along and make better decisions too.