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Why you need to rethink your approach to power in the workplace

Power in the workplace is less about getting people to do your bidding and more about helping them be successful. Here's how to practice "clean power."

9 min read


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Any treatment of the topic of power in the workplace is sure to generate energy. (OK, sorry for the bad pun.) Add in guidance that the pursuit of power might be healthy and lead to personal, group and organizational success, and, well, the discussions are sure to become high-voltage. (Stop me.)

Yet, I argue that your relationship with power — specifically cultivating power — is essential for your success and the success of the people around you.

How do you react to the idea of developing power at work?

In workshop settings, I regularly ask groups what words jump to mind when they think of the idea of deliberately cultivating power in the workplace. The most frequent responses include abuse, office politics, backstabbing and manipulation.

The closest I’ve come to hearing something positive tied to the idea of developing power in the workplace is “getting stuff done.” They didn’t use the word “stuff.”

It’s not surprising there’s a negative halo around the idea of workplace power, given what we’ve learned about too many organizational and institutional leaders. Yet, research highlights a strong case for rethinking and reframing our personal relationship with the idea of cultivating power.

Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his research-backed book “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t,” writes:

“Systematic empirical research plus common sense and everyday experience, suggest: being politically savvy and seeking power are related to career success and even to managerial performance.”

Deborah Gruenfeld, also of Stanford, offers an alternative framing for us to consider in her book “Acting with Power: Why We are More Powerful Than We Believe“:

“Power is the ability to control others for our own purposes — that is one way to think about it. But power is also the ability to make a positive difference in someone else’s life.”

I opt for the latter!

The pursuit of making a positive difference in someone’s life is a powerful driver for leaders motivated to do the same for their organizations. If you lack power, you’re limited in your ability to positively affect outcomes, secure resources and influence key decisions.

The challenge is to find a way to both cultivate and assert power in the workplace while benefiting stakeholders.

As Gruenfeld writes, “In order to use power better, we need to start thinking about it differently. We need to start looking at power on the ground where it lives, in relationships, groups, organizations, and communities.”

How comfortable are you cultivating power that supports your agenda?

During my almost 25-year corporate career, I resolved to be one of those individuals who had strategic, execution and transformational power at a high level. Of course, first, I had to earn the trust and respect of colleagues, bosses and board members. Together, we built two market leaders in different sectors with some great people.

Alternatively, in one (later) corporate stint, I failed to pursue and achieve the level of power essential to drive strategic and execution decisions. I rationalized that I was a more mature servant leader and resisted the pursuit of the necessary power to sway key decisions with my executive team peers.

This organization failed, and I regret striving to push my long-developed drive for power to the background in the name of some false sense of harmony. By doing so, I failed to do my best for the stakeholders.

If you believe you have ideas to help better serve stakeholders, improve operations, reduce inefficiencies or bring new products or services to life, you need to cultivate power. And while you might not be a senior executive, power is contextual.

The product manager, convinced she has a great idea to serve an important customer segment, needs the ability to influence senior executives for investment support and to build a working coalition of engineers, developers, marketers and sales professionals.

Or, the support manager bent on improving customer satisfaction needs the help of IT, finance and all customer support members to achieve their goal.

So, can you cultivate power cleanly?

It’s unfortunate to have to distinguish between various flavors of power. Yet, given the blink reaction to the idea of power described above, I find it helpful to talk about “clean power” — power cultivated in alignment with organizational values and ethics to benefit stakeholder groups.

No backs need be stabbed in the making of clean power. One caveat: It’s a tough world, and some in your workplace might not play by the same rules. Just because you operate with a clean power approach doesn’t mean others will. It pays to be clean, nice and vigilant.

TalentSmart founder and LEADx Chief People Scientist Travis Bradberry cites a study that suggests nice people can succeed with power. He writes:

“The researchers found that the most powerful people (according to ratings from their peers) were those who were the most considerate and outgoing. They also found that those who were the most Machiavellian — using things like gossip and manipulation to gain power  —were quickly identified and isolated and ended up with no power at all.”

The evidence suggests a clean power approach can work. Now, the question is, how do you bring this to life? Let’s look at three approaches you can adopt immediately to begin cultivating clean power.

3 big ideas to grow your clean power

Run a search on some variation of “growing your power at work,” and you’ll find many ideas. In the article by Bradberry alone, he cites 11 different tools.

In my career and coaching, I find three approaches to cultivating clean power to be more equal than the others. Assuming you are generating good results and valued by your manager and peers, time invested in these activities will pay ample dividends.

1. Strengthen your internal and external networks weekly

Work unceasingly to identify individuals able to further your agenda and impact the priorities of your team and manager. Create a map of the individuals who influence your area of responsibility and can help or hinder your success with crucial goals. Then, evaluate the strength of your relationships with them and hold yourself accountable to regular relationship development efforts.

One hack I suggest is a weekly Start/Renew/Repair process for these critical relationships.

Sidebar: Many individuals indicate they are uncomfortable reaching out to executives and influencers who they don’t know. One way to make your approach a lot less awkward is to identify something that is likely to be of interest to them.

Insights from customers, accolades for their team members, or reactions to their recent presentation — it’s not difficult to tune in to a good approach topic if you do your homework. Once you create an opening, find opportunities to seek their input. Almost everyone appreciates being asked their opinion on something.

Beyond your organization, your external networks are an incredible source of problem-solving potential. Spend time cultivating networks through community, education and other endeavors. Strive to get to know people and their interests and areas of expertise.

In instances where I’ve attended executive education programs, I have walked away with new colleagues and contacts I’ve called upon to help my organizations meet specific challenges.

2. Use the principle of reciprocity to grow your power

Reciprocity is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for creating strong relationships and growing your power. Simply stated, reciprocity is the process of doing something for someone else, knowing that they will feel as if they owe you one. You might not know when you will need to ask for their help, but know that it’s easier to gain their support when you’ve proven you will support them.

Start with your boss. What can you do to further their agenda? How might you help them solve a problem or realize a goal that’s important to them?

For peers and colleagues beyond your function or area, find ways to help them when asked or when a situation becomes visible. Your ability to bring an outside expert in to help with a colleague’s significant initiative, or your ability to provide advocacy for a team member’s good ideas, all will generate a positive reciprocity debt.

3. Build coalitions to tackle the big issues

It’s common to encounter people who do a good job executing their primary jobs and serving as good citizens. Thank goodness! However, one opportunity to grow contextual power is to extend your reach beyond just your daily assignments and use the strength of your networks and relationships to bring together resources to solve the significant issues around strategy, execution, or transformation.

If you consider that the most powerful people in any organization are the ones who decide what gets done and who does what, your ability to bring people together to take on and succeed with the big challenges will grow your power quickly.

Couple this effort with a genuine effort to generate visibility for individuals helping you make it happen, and you reinforce the reciprocity effect in a virtuous manner.

The bottom line

We all have a personal relationship with power. How we serve our leaders and lead those who serve are all choices we are free to make. If you have ideas you want to bring to life, and if you’re going to scale your impact for your stakeholders, you need to develop your power deliberately.

Power is less about getting them to do your bidding and much more about helping them be successful. Is it time for you to bring a clean power strategy to life?

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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