Power is not a topic that is spoken about openly in the workplace. But almost every person, task and transaction is affected by it. By definition, power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. And as you well know, some people in an organization clearly have more power than others.
The CEO’s opinion matters more than everyone else’s, but nobody explicitly labels that as power. That’s because power is almost a dirty word in the office. It’s associated with blind ambition, arrogance and egotism.
Yet the fact remains that power is distributed unevenly in life, and especially in business. Hierarchy and defined spans of control are necessary in order to focus on, manage and achieve goals. Companies need leaders to take ownership and accountability for financial results and organizational outcomes, which inherently requires a significant amount of power to be assigned within leadership roles.
For some leaders, this power does in fact build up their ego and they do everything they can to feel and exercise their special status and authority. They always sit at the head of the conference table, carelessly show up late because the meeting can’t start without them or they project an air of judgement that makes the people around them feel questioned and evaluated in every interaction.
But a new generation of workers, particularly millennials, are pushing back on these tired and ineffective management practices. They are seeking leaders who serve others and look for ways to share and redistribute their power.
Here are the three things innovative leaders are doing differently to empower their teams and build trust among their colleagues.
1. They acknowledge unspoken dynamics
When issues go unspoken, they also go unaddressed, which is certainly true with unhealthy or unnecessary power dynamics. Daring leaders are those who consciously choose to see and discuss openly the undercurrent of power in their organization.
This new breed of leaders are doing their own internal work to explore their beliefs and baggage around power (whether it’s a good or bad thing); they bring a greater awareness of where power is playing a part in the logistical or cultural norms of the company, and especially within their own teams.
To do this, the first step is to observe how power is present around you. Ultimately you have to acknowledge the role you play in perpetuating the current structure. Do you like to or need to feel superior? Most people will instinctively answer no, but with deeper soul-searching realize that isn’t entirely true.
A desire to be special is normal. What’s important is to acknowledge it to yourself so you can take notice of hidden motivations that may be driving some of your leadership behaviors and the use (or misuse) of power in your organization. With this heightened awareness, you will be ready and able to make changes within your team and influence the work culture when necessary.
2. They let their actions set the tone
Human beings crave power because of our intrinsic need for respect, which power often brings with it. And while almost all companies would tell you that they respect their employees equally, regardless of status or level, the actions of their leaders may paint a different story.
As you build your awareness of workplace power dynamics, monitor how and when you show respect to people with more power. How fast do you answer the emails of senior executives versus your direct reports? Would you walk by the CEO in the hallway without speaking? Would you show up late to their meeting, and check your email or step out to take a call while they are speaking or would you wait until someone less important is talking?
Your actions, even if unconsciously motivated, send subtle messages about power to the people around you. If you want an organization where power is shared, you have to show the same level of respect to everyone you interact with. This is hard to do because as a leader you are busy and prioritizing your time seems to call for prioritizing the importance of people. But when you avoid this pitfall, you create a much stronger culture of respect and engagement.
3. They disrupt common practices
Power unbalances are most noticeable throughout the hiring process. During interviews it is clear that one person has something (a job) that the other wants, so almost all the power resides on one side. But a company that truly prioritizes people knows that top talent will also be assessing their organizational values; how the company handles their position of hiring power says a lot about the culture.
For this reason, Lauryn Sargent, cofounder and partner at the culture communications company, Stories Inc., works to share power with candidates that apply to join her team. She’s made small tweaks throughout the hiring process that help a candidate assess her just as much as they are being evaluated. She schedules ample time for candidates to grill her with questions instead of leaving it for the time left over at the end of the interview. She is also famous for providing candidates with references of people that have worked for her so they can equally dig into her background and judge the fit.
Lauryn shares candidly that she has second-guessed herself at times about giving so much of her power away in the hiring process. She recognizes that her tactics embed time and risk into landing the candidate she wants most. But she continues to deal with the vulnerability of this process because she knows that building a unique culture requires that you do things differently.
As you assess the practices in your organization, be that hiring, performance management or simple meeting etiquette, look for ways to shift your power to those that may need it. As you do this, you will likely find that a team with distributed power is ultimately stronger.
Kourtney Whitehead is a career expert and author of Working Whole. You can learn more about her work at Simply Service.