Who’s Afraid of Power?

switchI bet if I asked, you could rattle off dozens of examples of people who caused great harm from being drunk on power. It makes for great movies and it arguably was responsible for triggering the Great Recession.

But I see a different and equally destructive pattern at least as often: fear of power and ambivalence about power. Though it seems counterintuitive, these relationships with power can create as many problems as being drunk on power.

You may be thinking, “I’m an enlightened leader. I don’t think about petty things like power.” That might be true. However, if you aren’t attuned to power, it’s also possible that you are unaware of your own reaction to power and your relationship to it. Even if you are attuned to your feelings about power, and are at ease with it, are the managers who report to you as comfortable with their power as you are with yours?

How do you know there’s a fearful or ambivalent relationship with power in yourself or others? Let’s look at the some of the most common symptoms. Do any of the following statements describe you or any of the managers who report to you?

  • Tossing it away like a hot potato – Do you seek someone else to make a decision or broker decisions similar to those that your peers make for themselves or negotiate without a broker?
  • Schizophrenic leadership style – Do you swing back and forth from empowering your people to bringing down the hammer on them when they screw up, because you are not at ease with empowering them and holding them accountable in a constructive manner?
  • Acting like a friend – Do you talk with your employees as if you are peers and pals instead of recognizing that as their boss, you are more powerful and need to be more thoughtful about what you do and don’t share?
  • Accountability dumping – Do you delegate to your employees both the decision and the full accountability for the decision? Bosses who are at ease with power share accountability and know that their employee’s failure is also their own failure.
  • Excessive collaboration — Do you frequently seek collaboration and consensus on decisions that are relatively simple, straightforward, and noncontroversial? Simple, straightforward, and noncontroversial decisions should simply be made and executed, not turned into collaborative discussions.
  • Passive/Angry style with peers and your own boss – Do you not reach out and put effort into being included in key decisions, yet get angry when these decisions are made without you?

Unlike power hunger or power drunkenness, power fear and ambivalence are not obvious to others, so their destruction is quiet, passive, insidious, and pervasive. If any of these statements apply to you or to someone who reports to you, you need to understand the situation better and take action to improve it. There’s no easy answer and no one-fits-all solution, but here’s where to start:

  • If you see these behaviors in a manager who reports to you, share with that manager the behaviors that concern you and how you see these behaviors negatively impacting the team or the business results. Since this manager may have an ambivalent relationship with power, it’s particularly important you enter into this conversation in the mode of helping him or her be more successful and be certain that you’re not in the enforcer mode for this first conversation. Be ready to offer support for improvement in the form of mentoring, coaching, and/or training.
  • If you see this in yourself, the most important first step is accountability. You are solely responsible for the way you react to power in the workplace and for developing comfort and ease with power. Own this accountability.
  • Own your discomfort. Pretending you feel differently about power than you currently feel isn’t going to get you anywhere.
  • Once you have accepted your ambivalence or fear (or both), reframe power as merely something that is there, and that you are responsible to use wisely and ethically. You can’t make it go away. Managers hold more organizational power than individual contributors. Directors hold more organizational power than managers, and so on, up the chain. Hierarchy is part of the human condition. No matter how you are organized or what you call the different roles, some people will be more powerful than others. If you’re one of them, that simply is the situation. To pretend it’s not there is to deny the fundamental humanity of yourself and your coworkers.
  • Track situations in which you find yourself tempted to let your fear or ambivalence drive your actions, and note what triggers that temptation. Choose to respond differently to the trigger. You can’t change the trigger, which comes from outside of yourself, but you can change your internal response. A different internal response can lead to a different choice.

It’s by no means the whole solution, but it should be enough to get you or your direct report started on this important shift.

What are your thoughts about fear and ambivalence around power? Let me know in the comments below.


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2 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Power?”

  1. Highly descriptive article, I enjoyed that a lot. Will there
    be a part 2?

  2. Jennifer Selby Long Says:

    Maybe!

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