Leading with Trust

4 Principles for Gaining and Retaining Power

PowerThe word itself evokes a reaction. What thoughts or feelings do you have when you think of power? Perhaps you picture an organizational chart where the boxes at the top are imbued with more power than those below. Maybe you imagine an iron fist, representative of a person who rules over others with absolute authority. Or perhaps the word power conjures up feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or fear, based on negative experiences you’ve had in the past. On the flip side, maybe the word power emboldens you with excitement, energy, or drive to exert your influence on people and circumstances in your life.

Power is a dynamic present in all of our relationships and it’s one we need to properly manage to help our relationships develop to their fullest potential. In and of itself, power is amoral; it’s neither good or bad. The way we use power is what determines its value.

But what is power? How do we get it? And once we have it, how do we keep it?

In his book, The Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence, author and U.C. Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, shares twenty “power principles” that range from how we earn power, how to retain it, why power can be a good thing, when we’re likely to abuse it, and the dangerous consequences of powerlessness.

Keltner defines power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, particularly by stirring others in our social networks. Focusing on the needs and desires of others is key, and four specific social practices—empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories—are ways we develop power and sustain it over time.

Enduring Power Comes from a Focus on Others

1. Enduring power comes from empathy—We express empathy when we focus on what other people are feeling. We attune ourselves to their mannerisms, language, expressions, and tone of voice to gain a sense of their emotions. This promotes a sense of connection and trust with others that allows them to be vulnerable and authentic in their behavior. We can promote empathy in several practical ways: asking open-ended questions, listening actively, asking others what they would do in a given situation before offering advice, and soliciting the opinions of those in less powerful positions.

2. Enduring power comes from giving—Giving, without the expectation of receiving something in return, is a tremendous trust builder and leads to people being willing to grant you power in relationships. Keltner focuses on a particular form of giving: touch. Whether it’s politicians shaking hands, athletes high-fiving each other, or a boss giving an affirmative pat on the back, there is tremendous power in the human touch. A reassuring touch on the shoulder or warm embrace causes the release of oxytocin in the brain, a neurochemical that promotes trust, cooperation, and sharing, and also lowers blood pressure and fights the negative effects of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. The overarching principle of giving is that it’s a way of providing reward and recognition to others that promotes goodwill.

The key to enduring power is simple: Stay focused on other people. Prioritize others’ interests as much as your own. Bring the good in others to completion, and do not bring the bad in others to completion. Take delight in the delights of others, as they make a difference in the world. — Dacher Keltner

3. Enduring power comes from expressing gratitude—Gratitude is the feeling of appreciation we have for things that are given us, whether it’s an experience, a person, an opportunity, or a thing. Importantly, it’s something that has been given to us, not something we’ve attained on our own. Expressing gratitude is a way to confer esteem on others and we can do that in a number of ways: acknowledging people in public, notes or emails of affirmation, and spending time with others. Expression of gratitude spreads goodwill within a team and causes social bonding.

4. Enduring power comes from telling stories that unite—Abraham Lincoln is an excellent example of a leader who used the power of storytelling to communicate important truths and unite people in working toward a common goal. Families, sports teams, businesses, and organizations of all kinds have a history that is communicated through story. Members of these groups establish their identities and understand their role in the group based on those stories. Stories enhance the interests of others and reduces the stress of working in a group. They also help us interpret the events going on around us and shape the way we deal with the challenges we encounter. Stories bring us together and foster the sharing of power that is necessary in organizational life.

Power is often perceived in a negative light. The natural reaction of many is to associate power with Machiavellian attempts at preserving self-interest and exerting dominance over others. It doesn’t have to be that way. The best use of power is in service to others, and the four principles Keltner advocates are an excellent way to develop and sustain power in a way that allows you to influence others to make a positive difference in the world.

3 Big Problems with Failing to Use Your Power

power handsI have an uncomfortable relationship with power. We’ve known each other since back in the day, and over the years there have been times when we’ve barely said hello to one another, and other times when we’ve been best buds. Whether our relationship has been virtually non-existent or whether we’ve hung out quite a bit together, I’ve always felt a bit awkward around power. I guess you could describe my relationship with power as, well, complicated.

I want to use power wisely and for the benefit of others, but at times I’m hesitant to fully embrace it for fear people will think I’m being egotistical or bossy. I’ve been learning I need to move beyond that self-limiting belief because neglecting to appropriately leverage power can lead to several unintended problems.

You sell yourself short – Most people don’t fully appreciate how much power they have. Power manifests itself in many different ways:

  • Knowledge – The power that comes from having a specialized knowledge base or expertise
  • Task – The power derived from being able to perform a specific skill, operate equipment, or perform a certain task
  • Relationship – The power you have from leveraging your personal relationships with others
  • Position – The power that comes from your position or title
  • Personal – The power of your personal character attributes such as strength of character, passion, interpersonal skills, and ability to communicate well with others

Failing to tap into your bases of power is like a boxer going into the ring with one hand tied behind his back. You’re limiting the value of your contributions when you fail to utilize the power at your disposal. It’s not being egotistical to humbly and sincerely bring your full skill-set to the table.

You shortchange your colleagues, team, and organization – Not only are you selling yourself short by not embracing your power, you’re short-changing everyone else of your valuable contributions. Your team and organization is relying upon you to perform at your best and that means using all the various tools in your toolbox. Being overly hesitant to walk confidently in your power means your team will likely produce a sub-par product because you didn’t offer your best.

You create a bad precedent – Our patterns of behavior dictate how people know us. We use certain behaviors on a consistent basis and people come to expect and rely upon us to always behave in that same manner. If you choose to never use your power then people figure that’s just how you roll. The problem comes when you decide you do need to play the power card. It catches people off guard because it’s inconsistent with your past behavior and it leaves them baffled about why you’re doing a sudden about-face. It’s important to authentically own your power and make it a regular part of your behavior so people come to expect it as a natural part of you being you.

Power accompanies leadership; there’s no getting around it. There are specific principles we can follow to guide our use of power and it’s critical we find a healthy way to express it. Otherwise we fail to live up to our own potential, we hold back from delivering our best to our team, and we create expectations with others that limit our influence.

The 1 Question All Leaders Must Ask Themselves

influence match sticksWhen you started your career, did you intentionally set your sights on being a leader or did it sort of, you know, just happen? For most of us, it just happens. We start out in an individual contributor role and soon find out the only way to gain responsibility and earn more money is to get promoted into a supervisory position. Suddenly we find ourselves responsible for leading other people and we probably never gave much thought about what kind of leader we wanted to be or if people would even want to follow us.

If you’re currently in a leadership position, or are thinking about moving into one, you should consider one very important question:

“Why should people allow themselves to be influenced by you?”

Mel Lawrenz poses this question in his book Spiritual Influence – The Hidden Power Behind Leadership. The question contains several important truths:

  • Leadership is influence, not power or authority
  • People can choose whether or not they receive your leadership, you can’t force it upon them
  • The leader needs to have something worth giving

influence quoteIn an effort to help you answer that question, let me ask you a few more. Do you view your leadership role as a position, title, or form of power that will help you achieve your goals? Or do you view your leadership role as one of supporting other people to achieve their goals? Do you force your leadership influence upon people by coercing or demanding they follow your directives? Or do you earn the trust of your people by acting with integrity, being consistent in your behavior, taking a sincere interest in your people, and following through on your commitments? And what do you have to offer to your people? Do you have a track record of success and the expertise to share with others to help them in their own jobs? Do you have a desire to give people support, direction, and encouragement to reach their goals?

People want leaders who are authentic, genuine, and trustworthy, not those who play politics, are insincere, or out for their own gain. People want to know their leaders are invested in helping them succeed and will have their backs when times get tough, as opposed to hanging them out to dry when they make mistakes.

Why should people allow themselves to be influenced by you? Answer that question and you’ll reach a deeper level of insight into your leadership motivations than you’ve ever had before.

8 Ways to Move Your Employees from PowerLESS to PowerFULL

power giantWould your employees say their relationship with you makes them feel more powerful or powerless? Leadership – real, authentic, people-focused leadership – involves helping others discover their sources of power, not suppressing it.

So how can I…how can WE as leaders…help others find their power? I think part of the answer lies in helping our employees find autonomy and control in their work and self-confidence in their abilities. It also requires the leader to be self-assured in his/her own abilities and not afraid to give power away. It’s only by giving power away to others do we unlock our own leadership greatness.

Here are eight practical ways we can help our people move from feeling powerless to powerful:

1. Give them public opportunities to shine — It’s easy to get trapped in the daily grind and just let people toil in the shadows. Leaders should look for opportunities to sing the praises of their team members to other leaders in the organization or let them showcase their talents in cross-functional teams, projects, or public presentations.

2. Share information — It’s a cliche because it’s true; information is power. Leaders tend to withhold information because they want to retain power and control. It makes them feel valuable, needed, and in charge. However, it also creates a passive and reactive team who sits around waiting for the leader to tell them what to do rather than being assertive and proactive on their own. People without information cannot act responsibly, but people with information are compelled to act responsibly. Liberally share the information your team needs to act responsibly and watch their power and confidence rise to new levels.

3. Let them make decisions — Don’t micromanage your employees. There’s no quicker way to make people feel powerless than to rob them of their ability to make decisions over their own work. Constant micromanaging develops a mindset of learned helplessness among your employees and inhibits their ability to learn and grow in their role.

4. Ask for and incorporate their feedback into your decisions — Simply asking others for their thoughts and opinions signals that you respect what they bring to the table and you recognize that you don’t have all the answers. Contributing to decisions and the direction of the team allows your employees to feel they have power to influence their own work environment.

5. Be a straight shooter — Being evasive or vague in your communications can create the perception that you’re trying to hoard  information, power, and control which leave people feeling powerless about their situation. Giving and receiving honest feedback builds trust and confidence with others because they always know where they stand with you and that gives them a measure of power and control over their current reality.

6. Give them leadership opportunities within the team — Whether it’s formal or informal, giving employees a chance to experience leadership positions is a positive step toward empowerment. I’ve seen a number of instances where someone who was thought to not be of “leadership caliber” was given the opportunity to lead and turned out to be a fantastic leader. Sometimes people just need a chance.

7. Let them fail — It’s easy to want to protect our people from failing. Whether we want to spare them from the pain or we’re reluctant to let go of control in the first place, we often don’t let our people get in situations where they have the potential to fail. Part of empowering our team members is letting go of control and allowing them to experience success and failure. Failure is a great teacher as long as we’re willing to learn, and that’s a key role of a leader – helping your people learn from their mistakes.

8. Let them clean up their own messes — Building on the previous point, when your people fail, let them pick up the pieces on their own. Don’t swoop in to pick up the pieces, no matter how tempting it is to play the role of the hero who is arriving to save the day. If you’ve given your people the responsibility and freedom to make their own decisions and succeed or fail on their own, then you need to let them figure out how to clean up the mess if they happen to fail.

It’s our job as leaders to find ways to “power-up” our employees so they gain that sense of control and ownership of their work which leads to higher levels of commitment and engagement. What are some ways you’ve helped your people develop and embrace their personal power? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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