Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Women in Leadership: Power

I’ve had many bosses. Two were great, several were mediocre, and a few were simply awful. I can count one sexual harasser, one bully, and at least one liar. One taught me the difference between leadership and management. None taught me about power. So when I attended the “Women in Business – Transitioning to Leadership” workshop at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in May, I wasn’t expecting my ideas about power to change. When Dr. Mabel Miguel, Professor of Organizational Behavior at UNC and the facilitator of our Tuesday afternoon session asked us if we thought power was good or bad, the thing that came to mind was the old quote from Lord Acton, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I thought power was bad. Over the course of the next four hours, Dr. Miguel completely changed my mind. Not only is power not bad (what you do with it can be bad), but for me, “Power is good” became the single most important take-away of the workshop. Here are the objectives of the session:

• Help you understand power, politics, and influence in leadership and their role in organizations.
• Help you identify your power attitudes and sources.
• Discuss best approaches to influencing others and increase your ability to do so.
• Enable you to transfer the skills to your current job.

In our optional evening “after-sessions,” which took place in the bar or around the fire pit, members of my class agreed that the last bullet was an essential component of a successful session. We were here to learn, but this workshop was not just an academic exercise. We were here to become better managers and leaders. So what did the session offer me that was so personally “powerful?”

-Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford School of Business

Not only does power enable you to effect change and get things done. It is actually associated with better health and reduced mortality since you have more control over work conditions. So take Pfeffer’s words to heart. Power is literally good for you! Let’s adopt the following definitions:

• Power: the capacity or potential to influence others, e.g., to have decisions go your way.
• Influence: the exercise of power to change behavior, attitudes, and/or values of others.
• Politics: the activities managers engage in to increase their power and use it effectively.

In her Harvard Business Review article, Power Failure in Management Circuits, Rosabeth Moss Kanter tells us:

Powerlessness, in contrast, tends to breed bossiness rather than true leadership. In large organizations, at least, it is powerlessness that often creates ineffective, desultory management and petty, dictatorial, rules-minded managerial styles. Accountability without power—responsibility for results without the resources to get them—creates frustration and failure. People who see themselves as weak and powerless and find their subordinates resisting or discounting them tend to use more punishing forms of influence. If organizational power can “ennoble,” then, recent research shows, organizational powerlessness can (with apologies to Lord Acton) “corrupt.”

Moss Kanter also helps us determine how much power do we currently have by asking us to what extent can we:

• Intercede favorably on behalf of someone in trouble in the organization?
• Get a desirable placement for a talented subordinate?
• Get approval for expenditures beyond the budget?
• Get above-average salary increases for subordinates?
• Get items on the agenda at policy meetings?
• Get fast access to top decision makers?
• Get regular, frequent access to top decision makers?
• Get early information about decisions and policy shifts?

Power is both personal and positional. The amount of power you have is dynamic in that it can change with both the context and the situation. Individual qualities that create power include ambition/drive, energy/endurance, focus, empathy, self-awareness, and confidence. But these alone are not enough. Nobody is going to follow you if you don’t look like you know where you are going.

Our personal power is related to our task-oriented expertise and our organization-relevant skills (technical, human, and conceptual). We have a track record, experience, and accomplishments. We put forth effort and demonstrate commitment of our time and energy. We conduct ourselves in a way that is consistent with our organization’s values. We all have some degree of physical attraction, likeability, and charisma. We build a rapport with our supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates. We understand people’s motivations, show genuine interest in them, and make them feel better about themselves. We build and maintain social networks, alliances, and relationships, partly with influential people.

Our positional power stems from the formal authority of our organization based on hierarchy as well as control over rewards and punishments. It incorporates the alignment of our tasks with the priorities of our organization, our ability to bring in resources the organization needs, and our ability to control uncertainty. We want to be in the center of the work flow and have our information networks working effectively. We have the authority to garner and distribute resources. We are in a highly visible position where we are recognized for our good performance. What we bring to our organization is unique, and we would not be easily replaceable.

In her book, Men and Women of the Corporation, Moss Kanter gives us advice on acquiring power. Find ways to become more visible and more important to the organization. Elect to take on non-routine tasks, which will almost certainly involve risks, to increase your flexibility and establish a track record. Develop unconventional areas of expertise that will make you more unique and, therefore, valuable to the organization. In parallel with doing the right things, you also want to know the right people: organization outsiders can help you build your networks, superiors can help increase your visibility, subordinates can add to your centrality, and peers can boost your likability. Your job may require that you know the details of what is going on, but train yourself the keep an eye on the big picture.

As we seek power, we want to develop an “executive presence,” which includes both physical appearance and self-confidence, we want to self-advocate (but be aware of the societal double standard), demonstrate strength and high expectations, and learn to use humor to mitigate harsh messages. But in his article, Women’s Careers and Power: What You Need to Know, Pfeffer describes common pitfalls for women leaders as they try to acquire more power:

• Being the ‘good soldier’ and assuming others will notice.
• Expecting a network to naturally develop and thrive.
• Focusing on the organizational needs but not on our own.
• Being more comfortable doing favors than asking for them.
• Staying in our comfort-zone and not asking for new opportunities
• Focusing solely on people instead of the business objectives.
• Thinking (or worse: talking!) ourselves down

There’s an old expression that (almost) applies here, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” A small change makes it a powerful take-away here, “Fake it ‘til you become it!”

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