Benevolent Power or Malevolent Power: How To Deliver Expertise


Mr. Loveliman

I would call this guy "Mr. I Know Something You Don't Know", but instead we can just call him Mr. Loveliman. He's an intellectual property attorney. His job is to deliver expertise, to advise clients. He knows something you don't and that puts him in a position of power. The problem is, he's succumbed to the temptation to cultivate malevolent power rather than benevolent power.

Side Note: The ideas in this post are explored in greater depth in a book I recently wrote called Web Reliability. As of this writing, the chapters on this topic have not yet gone live. Subscribe to get the chapters in your email when they do come out.

Who You Know

When I use the terms benevolent and malevolent power I'm not really referring to the use of power, to the ends in which it is directed. I am referring to the acquisition of power, how it is gathered and maintained. I knew someone in college who was extremely active in the campus volunteer scene. This person knew everyone on campus and she did so by virtue of working with everyone on campus to help charitable causes. She was powerful, but benevolently. If she needed the help of some people to do something bigger than herself one weekend, she could call on virtually anyone and they would be glad to assist. She had cultivated benevolent power. She asked, what can we do together? I knew someone else on campus who knew a lot of people as well, but this person knew all the 'right' people. They coveted and protected the access to those 'right' people and made it seem good to be part of the insiders group. This person had power too, but they had cultivated that power malevolently. This person asked, what can you do for me? One person had cultivated power through inclusion, care and giving. The other person had cultivated power through exclusion, disregard and taking.

Probing and Coveting

So I found myself on a call with a lawyer. I needed some counsel on a topic that I knew I was clueless about. I immediately found myself talking to someone who used conversation to probe someone else. Mr. Loveliman probed to find out what I knew and did not know about his area of expertise. Once he had a grasp of the extent of my knowledge he turned it into power. He could have turned it into benevolent power. He could have sought to guide me out of the darkness and into a state of greater clarity. Instead he took the opportunity to make me feel small and weak and desperate — like he was the only one who might deign to stoop to tell me the dark secrets. He wanted me to pay more money to get access to the wizard's spell binder.

Power and Temptation

From the very beginning of running my web development business I encountered the temptation to cultivate benevolent versus malevolent power. There's a lot to know about running a website. It's an area of expertise and it's pretty opaque to the average person. When a prospective client comes in, they know they can't hide their ignorance. It's humiliating for them. There's where the temptation to power comes in. You can exploit their vulnerability or you can relieve it.

I'm sure I succumbed to the temptation a few times to walk around with my chin in the air like I knew the deep secrets that no one else knew. I remember one time when I was in a meeting with a tech lead and a VP of Marketing at one of the first and biggest video conferencing companies. We were brainstorming and strategizing a new authoring tool for some website initiatives they were considering. Things were getting pretty technical. The tech lead leaned over to the VP of Marketing and said, "I'm going to talk tech with Mitchell for a couple of minutes. Just relax. I'll explain it later." It was like that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone is having dinner with McCluskey and Sollozzo right before he makes them go bye bye. Sollozzo leans over to McClusky and says, "I'm going to speak Italian to Michael for a moment ok?" Michael Corleone was annoyed and so was I.

This is pretty much the formulation: "I know something you don't know and I'm going to covet it and hoard it and not let you fully see it. This gives me power, malevolent power." The benevolent formulation goes more like this: "I know something you don't know and I'm going to explain every bit of it to you so that you don't have to sit there and feel small, dominated and humiliated anymore."

Little Man In A Little Room

Mr. Loveliman's world is small. He lives in a small room and very few people are allowed into it. Those that do all have the same color skin, the same gender, the same educational background, etc. Mr. Loveliman doesn't really have the advantage of those of us who compete on the open internet. We digital workers encounter all kinds of people from all over the world on a daily basis. They have millions of choices of service providers. They have power and it comes from choice. If we cultivate malevolent power, covetous power and try to manipulate them with it, we get slapped down. A bad reputation spreads. But worst of all, we get that gross tummy ache that comes from being unkind to other humans. When we cultivate knowledge and expertise and we share that readily and sustainably with as many people as possible, we cultivate benevolent power. We derive power from a deeper source, a more pure font. It comes from a more nourishing and fructifying depth.

Over the years I have really come to enjoy those moments of diffusing my clients' embarrassment and sense of powerlessness when they feel ignorant about something. I don't enjoy it the way Mr. Loveliman does. I enjoy it instead in a way that I feel is more sustainable and rewarding. When I know something that someone else does not know, I have the privilege of cultivating and using power benevolently by guiding someone away from the insecurity of not knowing into the stable and foundational feeling of knowing.

It's true that knowledge is power, but it's worth making a decision about what kind of power that will be.

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