On Leadership, Fear and The Under Use of Power

Power Button

Years ago I shared an office in a house that had been converted to offices for independent practitioners. One day, in a session with a client, things admittedly got a little noisy.

The next day, I found a typewritten letter under my door, addressed to “The Occupants of Room 4.”

It read:

“On Wednesday April 16th, at approximately 10 am, there was an excessive amount of noise from Room 4 that disturbed the other tenants. Please be reminded this is a shared building, and noise should be kept to a minimum.”

It was signed by Greg, the physical therapist upstairs. I saw this guy every day on my coffee break.

So What’s Up?

Since I know this guy and saw him every day, I wondered why didn’t he simply knock on my door and ask me to keep it down? Or why didn’t he just leave a note in my box, asking me to be more sensitive next time? So in response, I wrote him a note of apology and agreed to keep it down.

But his method of notifying me really bothered me. Why did Greg have to act so bureaucratic when we had a friendly, collegial relationship. I thought about it for weeks, and then it struck me. Greg felt weak.

He was afraid to approach me directly, so he relied on rules, on legalese, rather than on our relationship.

The Under Use of Power

When we think of the misuse of power, our thoughts inevitably fly to the headline grabbers: the tyrants and bullies, schemers and scammers, or our first boss or sixth grade teacher.

Yet surprisingly, some of the biggest power problems stem from under use, not overuse of power.

Like Greg, not being comfortable with power, not identifying with one’s authority, whether it stems from a formal position, or an informal personal power, can cause just as much conflict and mayhem as does the overuse and abuse of power.

As John Adams said:

“It is weakness, rather than wickedness, which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power.”

Immature Understanding of Power

The cliché, “I won’t be like my mother (or father)” holds especially true when it comes to power. We grow up in a context where power was used on us: by parents, siblings, on the playground, by teachers, and other adults. If we’re lucky, we were the beneficiaries of good, healthy uses of power. Chances are we weren’t entirely lucky.

A common response we develop is to blame power and to determine never to misuse it. But, here’s the thing: The more you hate it, the worse you’ll use it. You can’t enact authority simply by vowing “never to be like others.”

Hating power is the worst preparation you can have for occupying a position of authority.

The challenges I see in my coaching practice more often are the “Greg variety,” more often stem from avoiding using our authority, and trying to minimize our power footprint.

But these following behaviors wreak just as much havoc – albeit a different kind of havoc.

4 Misuses of Power

1) Avoiding Difficult Conversations

Trying to avoid one difficult conversation quickly spirals into a department wide mess.

  • A boss who refuses to deal with the conflict on her team, hoping it’ll just “work itself out,” is at risk of losing valuable team members.
  • Teachers who don’t take control of classroom dynamics let unsafe atmospheres detract from learning.
  • Team leaders who won’t intervene when someone dominates the meeting allow projects to degenerate into frustrating and pointless endeavors.
  • Parents who don’t set limits inadvertently teach their children that they’ll always get their way in relationships, and never develop the self-discipline and frustration tolerance necessary to work towards goals.  

Maybe we’re afraid of conflict, or just want to side step the awkwardness, but if things aren’t already ‘working themselves out,’ chances are they will just get worse without some kind of intervention.

2)  Not Making the Tough Call

Discussion airs issues and is good for creative problem solving, and an egalitarian atmosphere is critical for open discussion. But at some point, decisions have to be made. Too much discussion inevitably plunges a group into conflict. If a leader is vague, uncertain, or hesitant to make decisions, it creates chaos, confusion and conflict for others.

People don’t know what to do, outcomes are uncertain, work is often done for naught. And in the leadership void created by uncertainty, people jump in and fight for the reins.

The group can spend a lot of time sorting through conflicts about direction and inevitably get mired in power struggles. When power is not directly inhabited, it doesn’t just disappear but seeps into the interactional field, and is contested there, without awareness and without facilitation.

It’s an extremely exhausting and taxing process for organizations.

3) Using Too Much Ammo

Feeling like you have too little power often leads to the opposite: using more firepower than the situation calls for. If you underestimate your own rank, and are convinced you’re the weaker party, you tend to increase your fire power.

You use too much ammo out of fear you’ll be defeated, or not getting your point across. Whenever we feel one-down, we use extra force. We don’t see that we come across as an aggressor, and then we interpret the other’s defensive response as proof that they are the aggressor.

We then increase our firepower yet again, and suddenly we’re in a runaway escalation of our own making.

4) Relying On rules

Like Greg, who wrote me the officious letter about noise, reaching for a rule before trying to address things through relationship can create rather than resolve conflict. It stems from feeling weak. Unable to represent our side without an ally, we cc the boss, HR, or others onto the email.

Or, we threaten indirectly, by sounding legal or referring to procedures.

But reaching for rules, guidelines, or procedures when things go awry, or as a way to influence someone, should be a last resort, not a first step.

Just because power can be used poorly, and often is used poorly, doesn’t mean we need to avoid it. We need power. We need strength to be direct, to have tough conversations, to take responsibility, to minimize conflict, and most importantly, as leaders, to develop those around us.

So, are you guilty of misusing power by not using it wisely? Or are you subject to this in your workplace, home, or recreational life? How can you improve your understand of power and use it more effectively as you lead others? I would love to hear your thoughts!

**********

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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

——————–
Julie Diamond

Julie Diamond is a Leadership Consultant, Coach, and Trainer
She specializes in Designing and Delivering Leadership Development Programs
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Blog | Skype: juliediamond8559

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4 responses to “On Leadership, Fear and The Under Use of Power

  1. Julie – Love it !! Such a great article, and very insightful and timely. With so many people in politics and business today falling back on process to decide human events and next steps over Trust! We love process – too much! We all loved Joe Paterno, and the hole in his leadership machine wasn’t compassion or character, it was a reliance on process or weakness to do the right thing as you cover in Rule #1 and Rule #4 – avoiding and rule follower. Sometimes we are better to talk face-to-face or phone or text, whether we prefer introversion or extroversion or the topic. And if any of these tools are used over the opportunity to make the human connection and build trust, we are powerless, and may yield weakness and sadness.

    Like

  2. Thanks Jim. Love how you point out the reliance on process, in the example of Joe Paterno. It’s so true; so many missed opportunities stem from falling back on procedures and process, and not trusting (as you point out) the human connection.

    Like

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