Using Your Power for Good in the Workplace
Power exists in all of our relationships, and it shapes the roles we play in each others’ lives.
However, it’s not distributed evenly. Sometimes, it can be gained through expertise, knowledge, or skills—but other times, it’s tied into social and cultural factors like race, identity, and wealth.
With this in mind, it’s helpful to reframe the purpose of power in our lives. It’s about more than just personal status and privilege; it’s also a responsibility and a tool we can use to help effect positive, meaningful change. This mindset is especially important in the workplace. With the ability to influence and impact an organization, we can work toward a common good. We can also share power with others to help create more inclusive and equitable cultures at work.
Deborah Gruenfeld, Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior and author of Acting with Power, believes that power should be used to make a positive impact. In her eyes, “using power well as a leader means guiding and looking out for others.” She differentiates great leaders as those “who are willing to take that personal risk of doing something that may land badly with some in order to take care of people.”
Although it’s easy to feel ambivalent about power, Deb believes “you have to get comfortable using power in order to have the impact on the world you want to have.” Oftentimes, people hesitate to exercise their power because they’re worried about negatively affecting relationships or alienating others. However, Deb reframes this concern. “Your willingness to use your power is a responsibility,” she says. “You have to get comfortable using it, even though it feels risky—especially when it feels risky.” Leaders should be willing to take personal risks to help and protect others.
“Great leaders are willing to take that personal risk of doing something that may land badly in order to take care of people.”
Deb uses a 2x2 to demonstrate different ways to use power. One axis is about purpose—you can decide to use your power from a place of enhancing yourself or protecting other people. The other axis is about choosing to power up (demonstrate authoritativeness) or power down (demonstrate approachability).
Deb notes that these two modes of power both have benefits and consequences depending on the context. There’s the Command-and-Control style of exercising power based on dominance and imposing restrictions and order. “We think of it as old-fashioned, but research shows that people tend to prefer this type of power under crisis times,” says Deb. “When groups are in crisis they often want a stronger arm at the helm to keep the enemies at bay and restore a sense of order.”
There’s also the Respect-and-Connect approach based on “the sharing of expertise or know-how to gain respect,” and rooted in building trust and helping others feel safe. According to Deb, “true power is often much quieter and more deferential than we realize.”
When considering power, it’s also helpful to learn from Brené Brown and her concept of leaders working from a position of Power With, To, and Within. In contrast to those who work from a position of powering over others, Brené believes the strongest leaders “share power with, empower people to, and inspire people to develop power within.” They recognize that power becomes infinite and expands when shared with others and believe that leadership is about being in service of others rather than being served by others. They are also comfortable with getting uncomfortable because they recognize that’s where meaningful change can happen.
More Resources Related to Using Your Power For Good
How Those With Power and Privilege Can Help Others Advance Harvard Business Review
Be a Better Ally Harvard Business Review
Field Guide: Equity-Centered Community Design Creative Reaction Lab
Power With, To, and Within Brene Brown
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