Why We're Chicken When It Comes To Power!

Here's a tough question: Are you afraid to really talk about power?

Most leaders are. If you're one who avoids it, you could be destroying your career or your company! Harsh words. You decide if they're true.

In America we rarely talk about power openly. And when we do, it's often negative, as in "power trip," "power play," "power mad," or "power hungry." Even when we intend to be positive, the statement often implies a veiled threat or warning: "She's very powerful" (so watch your step).

Let's face it. Most leaders don't enjoy conflict.

Who wants to constantly engage in "power struggles"? So it's natural to have very mixed feelings about "power" a love-hate relationship. Everyone wants to be powerful, but it's not polite to admit it!

As a result, American leaders don't talk about power nearly enough much less deal with it effectively! And that's a costly mistake! Leaders who don't talk about power—and talk about it a lot—get run around the block!

So, let's take a fresh look at power.

"Power" is nothing more than the actual expenditure of energy. Everyone, therefore, is powerful. In fact, I bet some of your worst performers are some of the most powerful people in your company! Poor performers spend their power in distracting, counterproductive, or outright sabotaging ways. Their actions cause you to spend an enormous amount of your energy keeping track of what they're doing! When employees control a leader's attention for the wrong reasons, the power they're expressing is inappropriate and dysfunctional!

Ask the power question!

So how do you stop it? The answer is too simple...and too scary...for most leaders to accept: Ask them what they're doing! That's a straight power question. But most leaders don't ask it. Why? Probably because most leaders don't know what to do with the answer they're likely to get! It will be confrontational, or deceptive, or meandering, or worse. In short, you already know you don't believe the answer...and you don't trust your own response.

Therefore, rather than ask the power question most leaders try to "fix" the power problem. You try to find a "structure" that will contain the misdirected energy being expended. Maybe you reassign the person, or reorganize the department. Or perhaps you develop new goals, objectives or priorities with the person to see if that won't rechannel their energy.

You may get lucky, but...

Sometimes you get lucky, and the actions you take are effective. But more often than not, the energy (power) you've tried to contain reappears in some entirely different form or location, and is out of control again. Why?

Because you haven't really dealt with power. The simple truth is, people spend their power—their energy—on what they find compelling. Unless you, as a leader, are confident you can face what compels someone, you may be hesitant to address it straight on. Confident leaders know the secret that eliminates, or at least drastically reduces, the problem of power being out of control. Confident leaders get very clear about their company's mission, then talk about power...and address power questions...all the time.

Confident leaders never shy away from a conversation about how someone is expending their energy. You don't have to either. The key, as we learned in the first article in this series, is a clear, concise, core mission that is the anchor for leaders facing power issues directly. (If you need that article, call 503-629-5210 and we'll see that you get a copy.)

Here's how.

Everyone spends their energy, so everyone is powerful. People spend their energy on a mission...whether they realize it or not. As we learned last time, most companies aren't aware of their real mission. Therefore, it's actually much easier for a person to spend their energy (power) on their own mission, than to spend it on your company's unclear, fuzzy mission.

By the same token, when your company's mission isn't clear, you, as leader, have nothing to support you. What compels your energy is no more legitimate than what compels the disruptive employee. Leaders without clear corporate missions have no way of really knowing if energy being expended is properly or effectively aligned...they only know when it appears to be disruptive. Without the anchor of a mission, power issues become continuous confrontations that simply wear everyone down.

Before long most managers forget that any of this is a question of power, and simply focus on creating the next structure, program, process, or other mechanism they hope will finally get power under control. That dynamic turns into a race track that's very difficult to escape.

Confident leaders don't get caught on that race track. They observe any expenditure of energy—any act of power—from the perspective of the company's mission. In today's environment, it's imperative that energy at work be aligned with, and expended on, your company's mission.

Without that clear mission, it's virtually impossible to effectively contain power in your organization. But with a clear mission, every leader can confidently ask the direct power question, "What are you doing?"

There are really only two possible answers! Either the person (powerfully) describes how their actions align with the mission...or they (honestly) reply, "I don't know!" If their actions are aligned, you've discovered another way to be powerful and effective in your company! If they're not aligned, there's only one legitimate alternative— stop doing it. As a leader, you can confidently "direct" them to, "Do something that is aligned!" Now isn't that easier than constantly reorganizing to control the power problems in your company?

Go on! Try it!

Clarify your mission to two, three or four words. Make sure everyone in your company knows exactly what it is. Then, when you see someone doing something that you don't immediately recognize as contributing to the mission, ask the key power question: "How's what you're doing right now on mission?" Whatever their answer, I guarantee you'll have a different conversation than you've had in the past!

© 1995 by Dick Barnett, Barnett & Kutz, Inc.