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The Five Sources of Power – how to get good at them for women leaders

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In this article I look at how to exercise our power as women leaders with skill, and in a way that doesn’t diminish us in an environment where men and women are perceived differently for the same behaviour.

Much has been written about women in leadership roles and the ‘double bind’. Women leaders are expected to be authoritative in their organisational roles, yet approachable in their gender roles. When women behave consistent with gender expectations they are seen as less competent, when they behave more like men they are considered unfeminine and not likeable. So even if male and female leaders behave the same way they’re perceived and judged differently. And this is judged by men and women by the way –  we have all been well socialised.

So women who appear competent are often perceived as less likeable. Women considered likeable are often thought to be less competent. Men don’t face this trade-off.

These competing expectations can be exhausting to figure out and can lead us to act with inconsistent leadership behaviour that may confuse those around us. That inconsistency and/or tentativeness can erode how we are seen by others as credible leaders, not to mention how we feel about ourselves as leaders.

Why Does it Matter?

Because as leaders we need to get things done and we need to make an impact and that wont happen by simply getting everyone to like you. We do need to exercise our power.  The reality is only 20% of power is conferred, 80% is taken. This is according to Jeff Pfeffer world expert on power, who has clearly evidenced that intelligence, performance and likability alone are simply not enough to be a powerful leader.

So what do we do when looking to exercise our authority credibly and with integrity in an environment where people are often conflicted about our authority and power. Let’s look at our sources of power.

Our Power Pack

French and Raven back in the ’50’s identified five sources of power

  • Position power, drawn from our role and seniority in the organisation
  • Reward power, from our authority to reward those around us
  • Expert power, drawn from our domain knowledge and expertise
  • Coercive power, our authority to sanction others
  • Personal power, our ability to influence others

Which ones do you use? Which ones do you never use? Which ones do you believe you should never use? Why?

All of these are the sources of power you have at your disposal as a leader. We need to make sure we are using them in a skilful, blended way appropriate to the environment and the impact we want to make. And being intentional with that.

Don’t be a one-trick pony

What I see women often doing is over relying on their expert power. This is understandable when people can be ambivalent about your authority so at least you can prove your competence. Often working harder and harder and becoming more exhausted and resentful and confused when it doesn’t have the effect of building a powerful leader reputation. Well that’s because it’s simply not enough to be the smartest gal in the room – trust me.

I also see women horrified at the idea of using coercive power. Being powerful doesn’t mean being powerful over others. Coercive power sounds very command and control I know, yet we must be able to use our coercive power appropriately as people will expect you to be able to do that as a leader, with fairness and balance. For example if behaviour in your team or quality standards are unacceptable you may well need to, and be seen to, sanction this.

You also need to acknowledge that if you are able to give salary raises and bonuses you have reward power.

I see women often uncomfortable with their position power. Some of this is simply getting okay with being in a position of power in general. Exercising your position power doesn’t mean swaggering about and lording it over people. But owning your achievement, squaring your shoulders to the responsibility that has been conferred on you. The people around you who work for you and the people who have appointed you, expect you to do that.

Then there is our personal power.  If we want to make an impact as leaders we need to learn to influence and this is where our personal power is paramount.  This is where the work you do on listening, empathy, engaging, managing conflict, your resilience under pressure, understanding others’ positions and bringing your best self awareness to your leadership will pay off in droves. Think about what your personal power is, do it authentically and with integrity. And do this along with your other sources of power.

A Powerful Demeanour

So how do we take that 80% of power in an environment that’s not going to naturally confer it on us?  Whether we like it or not for both men and women, demeanour and voice is incredibly important for others to confer power. Women can begin to address the dynamic of likability versus competence by knowing when to ‘play high’ and when to ‘play low’. Professor Deborah Gruenfeld’s 10 minute video on how to be authoritative and approachable has powerful skill building in it for you to practice.

As importantly we need to project confidence and assurance even if we don’t feel it. Our body language can also make us FEEL confident and powerful. The 15 minute TED talk by Harvard’s Amy Cuddy shows us great techniques for both feeling and being more powerful.

Don’t be afraid of your power, be intentional and skilled with exercising it.  Practice. Power does not have to be scary or corrupting if we stay self-aware and conscious of how and why we are exercising it, and for whom.  As leaders we have a huge responsibility to exercise our power to make the impact we need to make. Go practice your potency, the world needs it.

If you’d like to know more please contact me here

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