Identifying and Preventing Workplace Power Struggles

When we hear the word power, we tend to think in terms of title: CEO, president, owner, founder, VP, director, manager, etc. Many workplace problems stem from a lack of awareness regarding power imbalances—especially on the part of the one in power.

We might laugh at the CEO’s joke when we wouldn’t laugh if was just one of our peers telling it. But if we laugh at the CEO’s terrible joke, isn’t that dishonest?  One of the problems with power imbalances is it can cause us to act in a way that’s contrary to what’s best for the group and best for ourselves.

Many factors can affect who is in power and who is not.  In some companies, gender can make a big difference.  We know for a fact that across the board women are paid 70% of what men are paid.  To the extent that money equals power, women can be in its huge disadvantage. The same goes for age, race, appearance, socioeconomic status, education, language, skills, experience, seniority, nepotism, personality (introversion vs. extroversion), etc.

New leaders may not even notice after they get a new title that they’re being treated differently.  Maybe people are being less frank or honest than they used to be.  Maybe subordinates are less willing to risk having “bad” ideas in a brainstorming session. Some might be less honest (and creative) for fear their opinion is not shared by the authority figure.

People who feel stymied will feel they can’t raise frank questions or objections. Over time, the team will be disincentivized to participate, or they’ll only participate in a yes man or yes woman kind of way. That’s why it’s important for people in a position of leadership to do what they can to coach people up and rebalance the balance of power, at least for the purposes of the project they’re working on.  Otherwise, you’re going to lose a shot at the best performance possible.

The larger the power differential, the more necessary it is for the one in power to make a conscious effort at rebalancing. Powerlessness can lead to acting out, passive aggressive behavior, sabotage, or at a minimum, complete disengagement.  If you ever find yourself in a meeting and you’re the only one talking, you can be sure there’s a power problem. If you’re not getting participation from the group, you have not created a climate where people are incentivized to participate.

Five To-Dos for Rebalancing Power

  1. Be aware of power imbalances. Try to empathize with the person with less power.  Listen 80% of the time, talk 20%. In a meeting, speak last and speak least.
  2. Be a good role model. Remember the old saying, you can always judge a person’s character by how they treat someone who can’t fight back.  If you always treat everyone with respect, then you’ll never have to worry about that “CEO Bullying a Barista” video going viral.
  3. Reward participation and collaboration. This doesn’t necessarily mean cash, although that’s not a bad idea.  But recognize and celebrate participation.  You’d rather have more ideas than fewer ideas to sort through, so go ahead and reward blurting.
  4. Rebalance whenever possible. For example, to even the playing field between introverts and extroverts, announce meetings in advance, as well as the expectation that everyone will participate.  At least 24 hours before the meeting, provide reading materials, agendas, etc., so everyone is well-prepared.
  5. Coach up. How? Listen carefully, behave in a trustworthy way, and show genuine interest in everyone’s ideas.

If you’d like to discuss how you can coach up, send me an email at Scott@doubledareyou.us and we can set up a time to talk.

photo credit: Infinity Studio Egg via photopin (license)