What the ability to Use Power “is”:
Power is the source of strength behind all those soft-skills we consultants like to use. Negotiations, influence, politics, and diplomacy only work when they can be backed by a threat of real power. They work best when backed by an implied threat, and second best under an explicit threat. They work least when backed by a show of force. Note that power here does not mean physical strength, but power in all its forms: the power to reward, punish, withhold or divulge information, or to form or break off relationships. And the reason that your ability to influence diminishes as you are more obvious in your use of power is twofold: first, using power is expensive. Using power requires an investment in time, energy, and resources that must be replenished; an explicit threat may need to be backed up with some minimal level of time, energy, and resources that also need to be replenished; an implied threat costs nothing and leaves you at full strength. Second, using power conveys information about your capabilities that maybe you didn’t want to share… in other words, it erodes your ability to bluff, and that can put you at a huge disadvantage in negotiations.
The ability to use power is knowing how and when to imply a threat, how and when to make an explicit threat, and when to demonstrate power in order to maximize one’s ability to accomplish goals without using power at all. More in the video:
How to spot the ability to Use Power:
The willingness to use power is pretty obvious; these are the people who always want to hit the nuclear button and who don’t realize when they are biting their noses to spite their faces. Last year, we had some of these people at our local school who basically picked a fight with the School Board. Some of us had to step into the fray to put a muzzle on them before the wrecked things for everyone. (Unfortunately, we had some similarly pugnacious personalities on the Board, too, but that’s a tale for another time.) The point is, you know those people pretty quick.
The ability to use power effectively is far more subtle. In extreme cases, the ability to use power looks like weakness… especially when wielded by a master who lulls you into a false confidence and then eats your lunch when you’re not paying attention. Think Sun Tzu’s generals, Columbo, Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks… even Machiavelli’s prince. These are folks who can afford to be patient, because they’vealready won before they’ve engaged. It can be very tough to spot these people.
In a business context, look for managers who have fired people for performance and fit reasons (beyond letting people go for cause or as part of layoffs), and who struggled with the decision. The manager should be able to articulate the trade offs made in letting the person go vs. trying to manage out of the situation, and they should also be able to tell you the steps they took to try to avoid the situation.
How to develop your ability to Use Power:
Do three things: first, prepare mentally. Imagine yourself in the conversation/situation, imagine the pressure you’re feeling, and then picture yourself taking the action you know you need to take. Second, build a network of people who have been there/done that who you can use as a mastermind group; it doesn’t have to be formal, but know where to go to get guidance. And third, take total control of your destiny by eliminating the words “if only” from your vocabulary.
Saying things like, “We’d be fine if only she’d stop compaining,” or a variant such as, “We’ll do OK once [read: if only] the economy turns around,” stops you from using power because such language tricks you into a false sense of security. Own your life, take full responsibility—by which I mean 100% FULL responsibility—and you’ll grow less reluctant to use power because you’ll recognize it as one of the tools you need to achieve success.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.