Getting comfortable with power – why we need to and why it’s a challenge

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You’re not a leader if you have no power. Whether it’s the power to get things done, to make change or to engage others, power is at the heart of leadership, we build our authority through the skilful use of our power. And demonstrating that sense of authority is what gets us into a position as female leaders to make the difference we want to make. It not only ensures we can impact and influence as leaders, the skilful use of power is what evidences our leadership to others.

And yet many of us find the idea of exercising power uncomfortable, which in turn can diminish our impact. Such ambivalence is understandable: there’s a dark side to power. We have all seen power and authority used negatively, plus gender expectations can harshly judge women for exercising their authority which if we have had push back around that previously can make us tentative about it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Power does not have to be corrupting, scary or dark.

By understanding our sources of power and the social perceptions we’re dealing with, we can practise using our power as a leader with skill and intention to make the impact we want. Click To Tweet

Just duck the power play?

Absolutely not, because exercising power and authority comes with being a leader. You’ve been given this power with your position and you’re expected to use it. It’s how you influence, impact and get your and your team’s important stuff done. And your people, peers, bosses and clients will be feeling its impact and watching how you use it.

Battling the bias

As women leaders, we can feel squeamish about exercising power, because society seems to be telling us that women shouldn’t really be authoritative and no one will like us if we are!

Outdated gender stereotypes ascribing male attributes to leadership and authority can box us all into gender roles – men are strong, driven and ambitious leaders, women are supportive and caring nurturers. And while we all know intellectually this isn’t the case, our biases are deep-seated and social psychology research tells us that they still play out big time in organisations. Such gender role expectations pull against the authority expectations of our executive roles, making our relationship to power even trickier.

If we are aware of these stereotypes and unconscious biases, we can consciously act for our own and our organisations’ well-being by knowing what we are doing about them and with them.

Respected and liked?

We have all seen examples of women who behave more alpha male than the men to get respect, but they are not usually liked. Conversely, we have all experienced the female leader who over-does the being liked but who is not respected.

There’s a likeability versus competence tension and trade-off for women that men don’t face in the same way – the well-documented ‘double-bind’. Women using masculine leadership styles tend to be judged more negatively than men using the same leadership style.

But we don’t have to accept this imposed constriction.

As a leader, we need to be both liked and respected. Click To Tweet

Your power range

In the ‘50s, French and Raven identified five sources of power:

Position – your role in the organisation gives you power, for example your work title on a business card opens doors

Reward – you have the authority to give someone a pay rise or bonus

Expert – your expertise and knowledge give you recognition and clout

Coercive – you have the authority to sanction others

Personal – you can influence others, for instance engaging your teams in your vision

These are all legitimate sources of power at your disposal as a leader – so don’t shy away from using any of them when needed. It is a powerful repertoire. I find that women tend to disproportionality rely on their expert power and they strongly favour using their personal power.

I also hear from women adamant they would never use coercive power. But sometimes you need to. For example, if someone on your team is behaving unacceptably, you are expected to sanction that, to deal with it firmly and fairly. Done well, it will raise your credibility and give those around you confidence in your leadership.

Practise your power skills

Only 20% of power is conferred – the rest is taken says Professor Jeff Pfeffer world expert on Power. Learn to read your situation and deploy the power and tools you have to make the impact you want. This doesn’t mean being fake or phoney or manipulative, but simply being deliberate about it.

One tool to consider is body language, helping you be approachable or authoritative as the situation requires. Take a look at Professor Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University’s useful short video on the body language of power.

Becoming skilled in using our power and authority requires practice and the courage to be consciously incompetent until skilled. It won’t feel natural. Keep motivated by focusing on what or who your effective powerful self serves.

Our authority is earned through the skilful use of our power. Our authority is key to us being good leaders. Click To Tweet

Make peace with having power and practise deploying yours with skill and integrity. It is how you will make a difference. Power is at the heart of leadership, without it, nothing important in the world happens. Find and use yours well.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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