Being aware of your power and how power alters your own and others’ reactions helps to handle power well. This is important for everyone that wants to develop a positive culture at work. If you want to look at your personal power: check my first post about power.
In this post (based on my experiences in a workshop by Julie Diamond), we look at power in organizations.
No Power or Equal
Many employees say: “I have no power”. They believe that what they do doesn’t matter to the organization. They can’t make a difference. The danger is that when people believe this narrative and they no longer see the power that they do have. Everyone has personal positive power and contributes to their team culture on a daily basis. Denying that you have power might make you blind for your agency: there’s always something you can do. You could become disengaged, apathetic, or abuse your power without being aware of your part.
Under-using your power can be dangerous if people rely on you. And it isn’t beneficial for your confidence and self-empowerment either…
“We’re equal”. Here’s another denial of differences in social rank, thus power. People are unique, so not completely alike. People automatically grade someone else as lower or higher ranked. As much as we don’t like the idea, our evolutionary brain looks for hierarchy to keep us safe. You might feel equal, but others might not. It’s best to be aware of our differences in social rank so we can navigate these differences and help others feel comfortable. People who feel comfortable can contribute more.
Power in Systems
“I’m always willing to help”, some co-worker might say. That’s not possible. You cannot always help – and the statement could indicate someone is overusing their power. Overusing your power is a common trap. It means you over-rely on power to manage your fears and needs in a certain context. It can be addictive.
For instance: the always-willing-to-help co-worker might have a need for control, the need to know what’s going on, the need to influence the result.
“Power is in systems.” This statement places the power out there, in the organizational hierarchy. We don’t take ourselves into account when we believe this. We are the blind spot. Because power is in us.
How have you handled your power in the past? For instance:
- Have you used your higher rank to get your way?
- Have you used your voice to override others?
- Did you ever hide behind your role?
- Did you avoid looking at your own part in a fight?
It can be interesting to reflect on why you (ab)used your power. The reasons differ, but people do so because they can. Or to get away from discomfort, from fear, to get our way, to confirm our higher rank (based on insecurity).
You could also say: “Power is what you do when you fail.” When you don’t get what you need in a respectful, open, transparent way you might abuse your power and force or manipulate others.
Looking at my own experiences, and Diamond’s and other’s research, most abuse of power is unintended. We mean well but “we hit things with our tails”. According to Diamond, we must learn to do better. Especially if we want to contribute to a positive culture. We shouldn’t overuse nor under-use our power.
Balancing your power requires personal development (what we practice in the Positive Culture Academy for a reason).
We all started life in a low rank and the victim energy in our memories (and around us) can be abundant. When you’re triggered you could fall back into a low-rank feeling and under-use your power. In this state, you could let your team down when you don’t step up for them. Or you scream at the team because you feel powerless.
Can people in power develop? Yes, of course, but power makes it more difficult. That’s because others see us differently and might feel intimidated. They see the role and not the person we are.
When you have power, you feel more free to act, you have an illusion of control, disinhibition, less empathy and a reduced ability to judge other’s emotions. You might even experience a sense of entitlement. Just because you can. The research and examples are superfluous about this effect. Power doesn’t only alter our judgment, it also changes how people perceive and relate to us.
Lens of Power
Julie Diamond calls this the lens of power: “Between the person in power and those in her sphere, there exists a lens of power: a magnifying glass that distorts perceptions, communication and relationships. The act we put on for people in power— whether conscious or not —alters our relationship to them, and hence their perception of themselves. People depend on the reflection of others to get a sense of themselves. But when a lens of power distorts this reflection, we are at risk.”
What can you do when you don’t use your power well? Here are some tips:
- Catch yourself in the act and acknowledge your mistake.
- Notice the feedback of the other, verbal but probably non-verbal. You might see them cringe, hide, frown, stay silent, retreat…
- Learn from the experience and help yourself change.
- Learn how to apologize: don’t focus on your intention but on the impact on the other.
- Be okay with being challenged and open to people who share doubts and objections.
- Don’t defend your good intentions and reputation (much).
A positive leader is aware of power and its impact. Being aware helps to create safety in your team, even though people have different social ranks!
NOTE: The Early Bird offer to the Culture Change Leadership Workshop expires on December 18. If you want to develop your workplace culture: register now! Join us May 18-20, 2020.
Do you want to practice positive power? Enroll in the Positive Culture Academy.
© Marcella Bremer, 2019. All rights reserved.