If there’s one word that has people running for the hills in our culture, it’s the word “power”.
In the world of politics, one conspicuous example of this became evident in 2008, at the beginning of a major global economic crisis.
Europe looked to Germany to provide leadership.
Germany had reason – frightening, historical reason – to hesitate to exercise its full power.
“Power” is a word which has so many negative connotations.
No surprise, then, that there’s a phenomenon I notice amongst some of my coaching clients. You could call it walking away from your own power.
It’s easy to spot amongst the young and talented leaders I get to work with. But it’s not confined to any age, gender, ethnicity or other group.
Are you walking away from your “power”?
You’re walking away from your own power if you have scope to take action and you’re not taking action. This is as true in managing your life and career as it is in your role as a leader.
Of course, it sounds so simple but the reality of it – your experience of it – is far more complex.
It’s possible, for example, that you don’t even know how much power you have to take action. You’re used to thinking of others as powerful, but you? You just don’t see yourself in that way.
Maybe you lack the motivation to embrace the power you have. Yes, you want to get things done and to a high standard. But exercising power? You think of yourself as a doer rather than as someone who can make things happen beyond the scope of anything you can do yourself.
The very idea of power may be daunting for you. Maybe it involves giving yourself a level of permission you can barely conceive of at this stage in your life or career. Maybe you’ve seen how others exercise their power and you know you don’t want to be like that.
Giving your power away
One client (let’s call him Lewis) recently expressed his frustration at the decisions being made by his line manager and the impact of those decisions on his staff. Wasn’t it obvious to his boss that the organisation’s plans were ill-conceived and would ultimately backfire?
Another client (let’s call her Maja) expressed her frustration that her organisation was doing so little to recognise her career aspirations. Yes, she was being offered another job. But she was painfully aware that it met the organisation’s needs much more than her own.
I asked both Lewis and Maja what conversations they were having with the boss about their concerns.
They hadn’t realised that talking to the boss was even an option.
Faced with the option of talking to the boss, each one expressed concerns.
Lewis could see that his boss was heavily invested in the decision he thought was so ill-conceived. He was probably right. He thought that to raise his concerns would have little effect other than to irritate the boss.
Maja struggled to embrace her talents or to give herself permission to gave priority to her own preferences over those of the organisation. In her heart of hearts, she was frustrated with her organisation precisely because she was looking to her employer to validate her need.
Lewis, Maja, were both giving their power away.
Your power to what?
What power did Lewis have? What power did Maja have? Each one had far more power than they realised. At the same time, each one had a particular idea of power that got in the way.
Each one saw power as something you exercise when you know precisely what the outcome will be.
Lewis didn’t speak to his boss because the only reason he could see to do this, was to persuade his boss to change her mind. He thought she wouldn’t change her mind so he didn’t exercise his power to talk.
Maja didn’t speak to her boss because she wasn’t confident her employers would support her career aspirations. She thought that learning her employers had different plans for her than she had for herself would put her at a disadvantage.
Neither Lewis nor Maja understood that our power to take action does not guarantee a particular result. Instead, it opens up a conversation.
At times, the conversation leads us towards an outcome we desire. The boss sees the validity of our arguments and changes his or her decision. Our employer expresses support for our career aspirations and starts to collaborate in finding the job we want.
What’s more, as well as leading us towards our desired outcomes, the conversation can lead to larger outcomes than we anticipated. When the boss listens to our arguments and finds them valid, the relationship is changed. We make a step – however large or small – towards a relationship of partnership with our line manager and our power to influence is increased. Or, finding our employer supports us in our aspirations, we discover our true worth in the eyes of the organisation. We also take a powerful step towards finding a role in which we can work to our strengths.
At times, the conversation does not deliver what we hoped for and still, it delivers. Perhaps the boss remains blind to our concerns. We feel frustrated at the boss’s lack of insight or the requirement placed on us to do something we have so little faith in. Still, by having the conversation, we learn something about our boss or about our own ability (or lack of) to persuade. Perhaps we learn how little our employer supports us in our own career aspirations. At first, we feel thrown back, betrayed. We may find it painful to realise that we need to look after our own interests in an organisation that isn’t invested in us.
In the short term, and especially when we first step into our power to hold the conversation, we may feel disappointed precisely by (as we see it) our lack of power.
Over time, though, if we continue to exercise our power, we discover that each time we do so, whilst the immediate outcome may or may not be what we wanted, we are better informed and have more choices than were open to us before we exercised our power. We discover, too, that the world did not fall apart because we spoke up and didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for. Increasingly, we feel empowered.
Embracing your power to make a positive difference
Whenever you walk away from your power, you walk away from your power to make a positive difference. You do this, even when you are motivated by a desire to avoid the misuse of power.
You also walk away from your power to take small actions that make a big (and positive) difference.
Whilst Lewis may not succeed in persuading his boss to change her mind, to say no to holding a conversation could be to say no to being the one person speaking up on behalf of his team.
Whilst Maja may or may not get the response she wants, to say no to holding a conversation is to say no to seeking a way to fulfil her potential. This, in turn, could mean failing to make her full contribution to others.
I wonder, what’s your relationship with power?