Developing Personal Power At Work: Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?
“Power has become a scarce resource that most people feel they lack.”
-Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation
A friend of a friend was about to be promoted to manager at a high-end cosmetics counter. Having been through the trenches myself, I was curious what she was most excited about if the promotion went through. I figured she might say something like more money, management experience, or flexible hours.
She said without a flinch, “The Power.”
My own relationship with power has been rocky. I remember sharing with my boss that I thought my job title was threatening to men, something a date honestly admitted to me once. He kindly offered to demote me if it would help. I graciously declined.
Throughout history and the stories we tell ourselves, I feel like women have been served a bad rap when it comes to power. Go for it, then you are labelled power-hungry like Leona Helmsley. Shy away from it, then you’re just not aggressive enough to do what it takes to get ahead.
To see this young woman openly own a pursuit of power without shame made me proud.
What Is Power
Power is not a title and not necessarily merit-based. It is rarely given or shared in obvious ways in the workplace. I subscribe to Harvard Business School professor and consultant Rosabeth Kanter’s definition in her book Men and Women of the Corporation:
“…power is the ability to get things done, to mobilize resources, to get and use whatever it is that a person needs for the goals he or she is attempting to meet.”
Why Is It Important
This may sound like a non sequitur, but I believe worth a beat.
Power is important because there is a finite amount in any organization. So a concentration of power in any one office means that things only get done through them, and therefore not through other people. Those other people have to align with or appease the ones in power in order to get anything done.
But while power is finite, it can be multiplied. This is the concept of true empowerment. A CEO does not stand alone. The best stand behind their direct reports, privately challenge their recommendations, and move forward as a unified front.
The leader can be more effective because there is a team around her that makes strong decisions on her behalf. She doesn’t need to be at every meeting. Her power is extended and shared with her team because she can trust that they have her back and vice versa.
Externally, it becomes very obvious who is signing the checks, approving deals, and generally making hay. What sales person wants to work with somebody powerless? It’s a waste of time and resources.
If a disgruntled client (internal or external) feels like he can always call your boss to undermine your position, then you have lost credibility as a person who can make things happen. You have lost power. And worse, the client is likely to maneuver accordingly.
I had a boss once who took pride in answering his own phone. He had lunches up and down the organization, at any level, from anybody who asked. You would think this sounds very personable and smart. However, what happened was that because he was so “approachable” people felt like they always had a direct line to him. And if they had a direct line to him, there was no reason to talk to me. They were being efficient. His actions, while well-intentioned, were inadvertently encouraging resistance to my role and responsibilities.
How To Get Some
The solution to my conundrum was simple in hindsight, but required my boss to adjust a natural behavior (which is never easy). I did not want to change his personality or lunch schedule. But the greater organization needed to know that I was the point person for X, Y, and Z.
So we discussed the situation, and I asked him to direct people my way if an issue arose in conversation about my area of his business. He had to trust me. These are hard conversations and I was lucky to have a boss who genuinely cared, but couldn’t look past his own need to control the lines of communication. He was limiting his own power.
The bureaucracy of the modern workplace means that there is always a small group of people who hold power. And everyone else aligns accordingly, often creating a cycle of powerlessness if not multiplied and managed mindfully.
However, you can disrupt the cycle by learning to identify powerful opportunities and having the courage to step into them. Per Rosabeth Kanter’s research, there are three main criteria:
- Visible – this is the original “face time”, but doesn’t mean you have to always be the last one to leave the office. Or accept every lunch request that comes your way. The takeaway here is to be regarded, not just seen. You want an opportunity to share your knowledge and insights that help move the organization forward. Potential opportunities include participating on a task force, taking a cross-functional position, or putting together a regular report that keeps disparate departments informed.
- Extraordinary – in other words, the appetite for risk. This is the “shoot from the hip” mentality where a person puts their career on the line to turn around a business, reorganize, or make a significant investment. Disney’s purchase of Marvel Entertainment and LucasFilms are great examples of a Bob Iger’s extraordinary leadership, vision, and power.
- Relevant – it’s worth noting here that power shifts. As companies struggle in different phases within their lifecycle, certain departments will be more important than others. For example, in the design phase, power is typically in the product area. Later on as the product gains traction, power may shift to marketing as growth becomes paramount. Being extraordinary or visible means nothing if it’s not relevant: addressing a current problem facing the organization.
At the end of the day, I know firsthand how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the nature of power in the workplace. This post barely scratches the surface.
My final bit of advice is to reboot regularly. Don’t confuse the power dynamics in the workplace with the inner power you always have to make the best decisions for yourself in all areas of your life.
“Doesn’t matter if the glass is half-empty or half-full. All that matters is that you are the one pouring the glass.”
– Mark Cuban