Being powerful is a learned practice

By Mike Cook

For The Bellingham Business Journal

“Power, . . . is simply the capacity to bring about certain intended consequences in the behavior of others. . .”
­­­—Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford University, Professor, Author and Leadership Expert

Without regard to position or authority, each of us, in order to earn a living must develop some facility to generate power in an organizational setting. Mostly, we are unconscious about this requirement.

I am pretty sure we all know the experience I am about to describe. We face a challenge that involves gaining someone else’s cooperation or collaboration and try as we might we just cannot get the other party to go along with that we want.

For people who are used to being effective this is a form of identity crisis, they get confused; for a while their world does not make as much sense as usual and rather than their normal confidence they feel awkward and unsure of themselves.

Last week, while working with one of my coaching clients we discussed such an experience.
While on the phone I noticed that my client, we’ll call her Sue, was more animated than usual. Sue, like all of us, has her “most of the time Sue” persona and in her case she is pretty laid back, go with the flow, steady on, pleasant, not overly friendly but collaborative.

Over the years she has parlayed a combination of her technical knowledge and working style into a very successful, by most measures, career. Lately things have gotten a little bumpy, hence the need for a coach.

Sue has been promoted to a point where many of her most important working relationships involve people working beyond the scope of her direction, relationships that require goodwill and mutuality of benefit.

Sue is not used to these kind of relationships, her experience, and actually her preference, is that if you can do something for someone you do it and the reciprocity is a given.

Now, as happens in many companies, she’s dealing with egos and agendas beyond her control,
she’s dealing with real leaders and politics are involved.

Despite what we’d like to think, leadership and being comfortable do not go hand in hand. Leadership in organizations does, however, require the ability to generate power across functional lines, this is politics in its purest form. Sue was unprepared for this reality.

Sue, without realizing it, had reached the limits of her natural way of getting things done. She had reached a point where she had some choices to make but first she needed to become aware of where she was and that the choices were hers to make.

My own recognition of Sue’s true dilemma came in the midst of our conversation when I noticed that she was blaming the other party involved and labeling her as being “typical” of someone in her role, “You know how they are,” she lamented.

My response: “No I don’t know how they are, but I know how you are about them and it’s very unattractive. How do you like yourself at the moment?” Sue very quickly owned up to being unhappy with her own behavior but honestly expressed not knowing what else to do.

Once she got to this point I said, “Good, now you can learn something new if you want to.”
All of us have learned how to be effective to some degree and in doing so we have developed (unconsciously learned) to do it our way. Once our way strikes out we get confused, as noted earlier.

I asked Sue if she knew what winning looked like for the party whose cooperation she needs. She responded that she hadn’t even thought about that.

People do not act in an arbitrary manner, they are doing what they are because they have a goal in mind too.

If you don’t know what it is, and they don’t make it clear your next step is to let your agenda go and find out what winning is for them.

Stay tuned, that’s what Sue’s up to this next couple of weeks, we’ll see what she learns.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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