The Power Illusion AccountabilityExecutionHigh Performance TeamsLeadershipMost PopularWinning Culture

June 4th, 2015 by Spencer Penhart leave a comment

Power ball

Consider the following statement for a moment: No one has ever made you do anything.

Yikes – that’s likely to open up some old wounds. But in both your business and personal lives, with the exception of being a victim of criminal acts, I assert that this statement is not only true, but vital to your success as a leader. Let’s explore how using power versus influence impacts both your leadership performance, and the business performance of your company.

Leaders and managers often overestimate how effectively they are using their power. For example, two of the most common problems leaders run into are 1) their employees aren’t nearly as committed as they are, and 2) not everybody can or will do things your way. For many leaders, the natural response is to resort to their formal authority and force people to do what they are telling them, or else face the consequences. Since being nice didn’t produce the results you wanted, you feel forced to shift into bad-guy mode: micro-management, performance management, and potentially, terminations. Paradoxically however, people start doing what you wanted, but performance still doesn’t improve much. Now, both you AND your people are miserable, with no solution in sight. This is how many people define accountability – telling people what to do, and punishing them if they don’t. Is it any wonder only 36% of managers and executives are engaged in their job, or that so many high-potential employees refuse to explore management roles?

Here is the biggest illusion in all of leadership: You can’t make anyone do anything!

Consequences vs. Choices: Here’s the hard truth: You almost always have a choice. Yes, the potential consequences of a given situation may make for an easy decision, but be very clear that the decision is still a choice. For example, let’s say your boss approaches you and says, “Do X, or you’re fired.” Do you have a choice? Of course you do – your decision to comply will depend on how much you value your job. If you are terrified of losing your income, or think you can’t find another job quickly, you will likely decide to do what your boss is asking. However, if you have some money saved up to live off of while you look for another job, and you fundamentally disagree with what your boss is asking of you, you will likely decide to refuse your boss’ request and look for another job, like these people. The person who feels he has no alternative options is the one who will feel as though he had “no choice”, but reality is there are always options available, and you are choosing one whether you realize it or not. Most important from a talent perspective, it’s your high-performers who have the most options at their disposal. They are the employees you can least afford to lose, while also being the least willing to tolerate a toxic boss or work environment.

Power vs. Influence: This difference gets to the heart of effective leadership. If you examine the definitions of the two words, some interesting differences emerge…

Power: Possession of control, authority, or influence over others.

Influence: The capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

After reading those two definitions, which sounds like the more effective leadership strategy in today’s business environment? Power and authority work under the assumption that people in fact have to do what they are told. But as we just discussed, they don’t! This has never been truer than today, when it is so difficult and expensive to hire and terminate employees. Simply put, you do not want to rely on your formal power or authority to lead your people, because the Command-and-Control leadership style results in employees doing what they have to, and not what they could do. And under these conditions, what they will do is figure out how to survive by doing the bare minimum.

A wonderful leader I worked for in the past had a saying: “Be careful what you ask of your employees, because you will get it.” What he meant was that employees will do whatever they need to survive and ensure their job security. If you make an unreasonable demand, your employees will figure out how to deliver you the result, but usually at the minimum level of quality and effort possible. In a sales organization I used to work in, the sales force was once asked to make an unrealistic number of sales calls per day. Knowing the pressure they were under, the reps simply fabricated the calls, and recorded them even though they never happened. Worse, the sales managers knew it was happening, but didn’t say anything because they too were under the same pressure to deliver! By relying on authority and power, leaders often generate fear within their organizations, which shuts down communication and leads to destructive scenarios like the above. When people become afraid to speak up, they are unwilling to raise discussions about problems or ideas for improvement, which destroys morale, stifles innovation, and keeps your organization locked in a cycle of repeating the same mistakes – all while your competitors are moving forward and improving.

The most effective leaders today rely on their influence to lead. Having learned that they can’t actually make anyone do anything, they instead focus on making their employees want to do things. When employees are doing things because they want to rather than being forced to, their outlook and performance completely change. They are now being motivated intrinsically (from within, because they want to) instead of extrinsically (from the outside, because they have to), which dramatically increases their discretionary effort – the amount of effort they choose to put into the job or task at hand. In Organization Development, this is referred to as employee engagement, and is the difference between employees doing great work, and doing the minimum. This extra effort by your employees gets noticed by your customers, who will become more loyal to you and do more business as a result. The Gallup organization has found that companies who engage both their employees and customers experience a 240% boost in performance-related outcomes compared to companies who engage neither.

In today’s business environment, power is both an illusion and a losing strategy. Instead, make it your goal to influence and inspire your employees to want to give their best effort. Both you and they will be healthier and happier, while driving improved business performance and execution.

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