The Force, from Perth, led 25-22 with 22 minutes to play when George Poolman was sin-binned for a lifting tackle on Highlanders fullback Sam Gilbert.
That was the opening the Highlanders - winless after three games this season - needed as they streaked clear to prevail 43-35.
Already depleted, the Highlanders lost All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizzell (groin) in the warm-up and then hooker Andrew Makalio (HIA) early in the game.
Inside centre Thomas Umaga-Jensen stepped up, a strong run setting up Jonah Lowe for the game's first try before a clean tackle and pilfer on Hamish Stewart spoiled a Force raid.
Highlanders No.10 Mitch Hunt scuppered a Force try with a deliberate knock-down and was sin-binned, but no penalty try was awarded.
The five-eighth returned to score himself on the stroke of halftime.
Force halfback Gareth Simpson was impressive on club debut after the Saracens-bound Englishman was drafted into the squad as injury cover.
He set up Zach Kibirige's first-half try with a clever short kick off the side of his boot then dived over himself early in the second.
That effort was called back, but Tom Horton crossed soon after on the back of a Force driving maul to give the visitors a lead.
Simpson then threw the last pass for Bryce Hegarty to score and, with less than 30 minutes to play, the Force were poised to finish off the winless hosts.
But No.10 Hegarty then limped off and Poolman's brain-fade quickly followed - Sean Withy, Jonah Lowe and Hugh Renton all scoring to steal a crucial win for a depleted Highlanders.
Two late Force tries at least earned them a bonus point as they dropped to 2-2.
"Wasn't the prettiest but it's a win nonetheless and we build from that," Highlanders captain Billy Harmon said.
"We're dropping like flies but Withy was ready to go; late onto the bench this week then late onto starting, it just shows the boys are ready to go."
Force prop Tom Robertson also failed his HIA after lasting just six minutes, a blow for the Australian side on a three-week New Zealand swing.
"We let the Highlanders run on top of us a lot of the time; they carried strongly and if you let a team get a roll on it's tough to stem that flow," Force skipper Michael Wells said.
"We've got to grind things out and if that's the team we've got to be, so be it."