How to manage your power in the workplace

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“Many people spend nearly half their waking hours in relationship with a person who has power over them, and that’s weird. It’s kind of unnatural, because most people, whether conscious or not, don’t feel comfortable with other people having power over them.” – Mike Nash discussing the workplace power differential on The Managing with Mind & Heart Podcast

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When you stop and think about it, one of the only contexts in which we as adults consciously enter into relationships characterized by actual “authority” (where one person is “superior” to the other in rank and decision-making control) is at work.

Most of us have a boss – someone who has a fair amount of power over us, and most of us spend more than half our waking hours under this authority structure – which, in a way, is kind of weird, given the fact that as humans we don’t tend to love being under other people’s control.

This power differential (which is felt most keenly by the person with the least amount of organizational control), is made up of two ingredients:

1. The actual power or control you have over your employees.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, your employee is aware (often consciously and often not) that you have at least some control over a huge percentage of their waking hours, including time (when they’re required to be at work, whether or not they get to take a vacation, breaks, overtime, etc.); tasks (what they spend their time doing); evaluation (how they’re “graded” or “rated”); opportunities (advancement, training, new duties, etc.); and even whether or not they get to keep their job - which touches on issues of personal well-being and survival!

In workshops we’ll often have a manager state that she doesn’t actually have that much “power” in the relationship, because she’s maybe a lower level supervisor and not the “top dog.” We remind people that although they might not be the person in authority who pulls the levers of firing, bonuses, discipline, etc., they certainly influence those who do. Let’s include the word “reputation,” then, on the list of dynamics you have some control over.

2. The employees own past experiences with authority
This is called “transference,” and it’s the stories about authority that have been powerfully yet unconsciously created within as we’ve experienced relationships with authority figures throughout our lives, including our parents (where the vast majority of our “story of authority” came from), teachers, principals, coaches, religious leaders, previous bosses, and others. Your employees are viewing you through a subconscious lens made up of how they feel and what they believe about authority – a lens that began to form in their earliest years. (See the video below for more on the role of transference in the power differential.) Is authority safe? Is it trustworthy? Is it fair? Do people in authority tend to have your best interests at heart, or are they focused on their own needs? Your employees will each have their own “story,” their own subconscious belief system, and guess what? You inherit this story! To the employee, you’re not a neutral entity or a blank slate. In a sense, you’re guilty (or innocent!) until proven less so.

That’s the power differential, and believe me, your employees feel it, even when they’re not aware they’re feeling it. And here’s why it matters that you know this: Whenever we’re in relationship with someone who has power over us, we do what we need to do to keep ourselves safe. We can’t even help it – it’s a survival instinct that has been baked into us through eons of evolution.

Here’s the bottom line: People need to feel safe and secure before they can bring their best selves to the workplace and in order to be able to do their best work. If left to itself, the power differential can get in the way of employees’ sense of safety. And since we can’t control either of the two ingredients listed above (the authority you have is the authority you have, and you have zero control over the “story of authority” your employees bring with them), we need to focus on the only thing we can control: our behaviors as managers.

During our workshops we help managers find behaviors that mitigate the power differential, as opposed to ones that either exaggerate the power differential or that seek to eliminate the power differential – two unhealthy and unhelpful extremes.

Exaggerating the Power Differential
Managers, usually inadvertently, can exaggerate the power differential in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, thereby damaging trust and respect in the employee/manager relationship and creating an environment in which the employee can’t show up as their best self. These behaviors include:

  • Using a tone that conveys anger or frustration. Remember, anger + power = scary, and scary + our evolutionary history = fight, flight, freeze or fawn. (Listen to episode 2 of our podcast for more on this and the Top 15 Management Skills.)

  • Announcing your power differential unnecessarily. (“Remember, I’m the boss…”)

  • Not soliciting others’ ideas or opinions, but instead making all the decisions yourself.

  • Not sharing information. (You’ve heard the phrase “knowledge is power,” right?)

  • Saying “no,” without empathy and explanation.

  • Being unavailable, aloof, uninvolved.

  • Delegating what you should be doing yourself.

  • Insults, sarcasm, flippancy, etc.

  • Interrupting, poor listening skills, defensiveness, etc. (Listen to episode 5 & 6 of our podcast for more on this.)

  • Shaming, blaming, stern responses, and “you’ve really disappointed me” facial expressions.

  • Engaging in “do as I say, not as I do” behaviors. (Not following your own rules.)

Eliminating the Power Differential
In contrast, managers can go the other way and engage in behaviors that are subtly designed to communicate that they have no power, often in an attempt to be liked or included. These behaviors can create an atmosphere of “leaderlessness” and create stress and disharmony in the workplace. These behaviors include:

  • An inability (or refusal) to address unhelpful behaviors and hold people accountable.

  • Trying too hard to be “friends,” and therefore crossing some boundaries.

  • Badmouthing other leaders and/or sharing your negativity about the organization with your employees.

  • Generally inappropriate conversations (off-color jokes, sexist comments, etc.)

  • Engaging in too much consensus decision-making. An inability to decide.

  • Not setting clear expectations and boundaries.

Mitigating the Power Differential
Instead – do this! Build relationship AND maintain a healthy workplace environment by:

  • Being kind. I know that’s overly broad, but c’mon. We learned this stuff a long time ago. Smile, check in, offer help, be empathetic, etc. Be a good human.

  • Listen. And I mean listen well. Listen so the employee actually feels heard. (Listen to episode 5 of our podcast for more on listening skills for managers)

  • Hold people accountable, but with respect. (This is much easier said than done, and we will be spending a fair amount of time on this in subsequent newsletters and podcasts.)

  • Show up, do M.B.W.A. (Management By Walking Around), be accessible, be engaged.

  • Ask for feedback and receive feedback non-defensively. (Defensiveness + Power = Unapproachability.)

  • Solicit people’s opinions and ideas before you decide, at least some of the time.

  • Empathize with them, including their personal lives. Remember, work is only a part of their life – and (hopefully) not the most important part. Show them that it’s perfectly ok with you for them to have a life outside of work.

  • Ask good questions.

  • Have some fun!

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