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Powerful or Powerless: What Do You Prefer?

In the previous blog post, you looked at the importance of building relations as a basic skill for first-time managers (FTMs).

Essentially, you're the instrument. How you decide to show up from situation to situation will determine how your relationships with other people are formed.

If you're the instrument, you will need to be aware of three things: your actions, behaviors, and conversations. At the end of the day, how you decide to mix and match these three will determine how successful you end up being in your roles as an FTM—or in any future management position for that matter.

In this blog post, you'll explore the first of these three key tools.

What you decide to do—or not to do—defines you in your managerial role.

Leaders who come across as trustworthy and powerful in the best sense of the words are the people whom you know you can trust to act on something when it's brought to their attention. In my view, they are powerful leaders.

There are people who have problems with the words power and powerful. In some cultures, these words have negative connotations—and there are often good reasons for that because we all have experienced powerful leaders who abused their power.

In his book Power and Love, which I can highly recommend, Adam Kahane defines two kinds of power: constructive and destructive. He explains the difference as:

  • Power over (which is the destructive version); and
  • Power to (which is the constructive version).

As a leader, when you use your power as power over, it's not that engaging. On the contrary, nobody feels inspired by being subjected to power over. Power over is encapsulated in replying, “Because I say so!” to an inquiry from a team member asking, “Why we are doing this?”

It's a classic beginner’s error for first-time managers to get this wrong and to try and bolster their position by demonstrating power over instead of focusing on power to. This form of power shows up when you order people around, grant or don’t grant them favors, and give privileges to team members, among others. These are all actions that demonstrate the notion that "you are in charge here."

On the other hand, power to is when you use your skills, position, and authority to change or create something. You are comfortable distributing power to other team members. For you, it’s all about getting things done and moving the agenda forward.

Leaders who display that kind of power are a joy to work for. This is in contrast to the ones that are powerless because they do not take action but always postpone, hesitate or kick issues upstairs to the side.

Non-action is also action.

In my view, the core problem with people in charge at any level in an organization, who are not seen as great team leaders by their surroundings, is not so much that they do the wrong things but that they are not doing things that they obviously should be doing.

This indecision comes in all shapes and sizes—from small stuff like having a team member ask, "Would it be possible for me to take two days off next month to go to my sister’s wedding?” and making them wait for an answer. They might even remind you more than once, wherein they'll get this from you: “Oh yes, so sorry. I will look into it.” To more serious issues like, “We have a customer who is upset with the last delivery on the phone.” There's a world of difference between the leader who says, “Let me speak to them now," and the one that says “I'm busy now. Tell them that I'll call them back,” making their team member think, “That's what our team leader said last week."

The worst form of non-action that I know is that of a team manager who doesn't respond to non-performance. In my opinion, it's probably the most destructive form of non-action there is.

Think about it: What's the worst way to insult a high-performing employee? It's to ask them to work alongside an idiot. If you're a highly engaged employee and take pride in your job, nothing ruins your motivation and engagement as much as watching someone work alongside you that makes a mess of the product or customer relation—someone who ultimately doesn't care the way you care.

The powerless team manager will come up with excuses. “Yes, I know Joe's not quite up to snuff but that's all we can get just now, so please bear with him for now. We will get it sorted out eventually.” But they seldom do. Because if someone's not doing what they're supposed to be doing, it's time for a powerful conversation—and there's no reason to postpone it.

Everyone on your team needs to know that if things aren't going according to plan, you'll act on it—not as a tyrant spewing blame all over the show—but as someone who cares and sorts it out. You'll be asking questions, trying to understand why you aren't on track. Then, you'll take appropriate action.

Why is it sometimes hard to take action? Well, you could take the wrong action and stand there with an egg all over your face. Non-action is often a result of the fear of being wrong. But like a great team leader, you need to get over the fear of being wrong. You'll be wrong from time to time, and that's not a problem as long as you acknowledge and try to improve on it. Perfect leaders don't exist.

Think about it, whom would you personally prefer to work for, the leader who acts and makes mistakes but is prepared to acknowledge them, or the leader who doesn't take action but also never seems to do wrong because they push those decisions up the system instead of taking responsibility for their own actions?

In the next blog post, you'll look more closely at the second tool at your disposal—your behavior.

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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.


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