Pursue What Matters
Episode 123: Power Unpacked
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Do you shy away from power? Were you taught it was a bad thing, something to be avoided? Well, today we’re gonna take a look at power and challenge some of these notions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:12
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters Podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work, wow, power, it is such an issue in our life. If you spend any time in the world of politics, you know that power is the name of the game, which might be why the rest of us want to avoid power, or sometimes have a negative association with power. Today, I really want to unpack power so that you can understand what it is and how how we can use it right. And really, ultimately, I want you to get to a place where you don’t have to be scared of power, because we know for sure, when it comes to pursuing what matters. There is some power in that when we think about leadership, it always necessarily involves power. And so if you are at a deep level of waiting power, or feeling very insecure about power, you may be undermining yourself without even knowing it. Right. You might wonder, why do I never get these leadership opportunities, where what’s really going on is you’re scared of power, you’re scared to lead, you’re scared of leading well, and leading with humility. And we don’t want that getting in the way for you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:55
So let’s start by defining power. So this comes from Sturm and Antonakis, and I apologize, I probably didn’t get that pronunciation, right. They say that power entails having the discretion and the means to asymmetrically enforce one’s will over others. Okay? So you might even just cringe when you hear that definition. But certainly power is asymmetrical, right. That’s what makes it power. So from Merriam Webster, we see this definition of power, it is possession of control authority, or influence over others. And again, that might pick ups and some negative connotations.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:42
So today, I want you to just kind of sit with that I want you to lean into this discussion, and see what comes up for you. And when we have conversations about power, it can bring up some really deep feelings, right? So maybe you had some challenging experiences with authority figures growing up maybe power was, was a dynamic that was often used against you, right? So we each have our own histories of power. Maybe you’ve had an association where power has been used judiciously. And so your experience is very different. But the world we live in, there’s always power dynamics. And so we don’t want to stick our head in the sand. When it comes to power. We don’t want to pretend that power is not a thing in our life, we want to understand it. And ultimately, I want you to understand your own specific dynamics of how does it show up for you? How might you get stumbled up by your relationship to power? So my question for you is how do you feel about power? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Do you fear it? Okay, so some people really love it, they just want more of it. Some people hate it, they see power as the root of all evil, perhaps. And maybe you fear it. Maybe you’ve seen others who when they have when they have power, they use it. They use it in in negative ways. They use it to harm others. So today, we’re going to talk about power and how your willingness to understand this can make a big difference not only professionally, but also personally. And as we have this conversation, I just want to make the point that power is inherently vulnerable. discussions of power are inherently vulnerable, whether you have the power, or whether you are at the mercy of another’s power. So just don’t be surprised. If you have some pretty strong emotions come up. That’s pretty natural.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:50
So of course every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead. I try to do that by helping you lead with clarity, which is all about connecting you to purpose. I try to do that by helping you lead with curiosity, which is all about cultivating self awareness, self leadership and self care skills. And I also try to help you do that by leading and building a community, what are the specific skills to help you lead well, and so as we think about today’s topic about power unpacked, we’re primarily focusing on two areas. First curiosity, what is your relationship to power so that it doesn’t trip you up? You need to have some self awareness about that. And second, how can you use power effectively to build and lead a community, because inherent to leadership is power. But of course, we want you to use that benevolently. And so we’ll really be focusing on those two areas to really help you strengthen your confidence to lead.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:59
Okay, so first, let’s unpack power. Okay. So what is it and how did we get all tripped up with it? So power implies control over your own and others resources, right. Power can give you freedom from the influence of others that comes to us from Galinsky, Rucker, and Magee. And that can be a beautiful thing. Power gives you freedom from the influence of others. Now, that’s not a bad thing to seek after. Power is valued and feared by many, right you don’t need research studies to tell you that but they do. There’s lots of evidence about that. People also tend to seek power. And one of the reasons we might tend to seek power is the second point that I made, which is power gives you freedom from the influence of others. So you might not seek power so that you can control others, right? That would be like the most cynical interpretation, but perhaps you seek power, so that you can be free from the influence of others so that you can freely choose for yourself what you will do and how you will do it. Another finding from the research is that once people have power, they are usually not willing to let it go. This comes to us from Anderson and Brian, and also Fehr, Herz, and Wilkening. And of course, I will have the links to all of these research findings in the show notes if you want to take a deeper dive.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:28
But once people have power, they’re usually not willing to let it go. Now this is one of the ways that power gets a really bad rap. I think probably the best example is in politics, right? We think about, we think about politicians who, who get themselves in a position of power, which can be a wonderful thing, right? If it’s used in service to others. But once they have that power, like having that power, makes people resistant to letting go of it. And so their efforts become focused on how do I maintain and secure my power, rather than how can I use that power to be of service and to help others? And so I think for sure, it’s understandable how we can have a very negative experience with power when we see these types of behaviors. And, you know, the final point that I want to make as we think about unpacking power, is that power is not the problem, right? It’s actually not the problem. But it’s the question really becomes in how we use power. So power is not the problem that how we use power absolutely can be and so with the podcast today, of course, I’m trying to help you to understand how you use power well, and being intentional about that so that you don’t become part of the problem.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:52
Okay, the second point when it comes to power is I want to help you understand the relationship between fear and power. Most of us have a whole lot of fear when it comes to power. So when life or work become unpredictable, what do we do as humans? So as humans, in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability, we want a sense of control. We want a sense of predictability. Think about that. As we have faced a global pandemic, did you find yourself feeling out of control? Did you feel yourself moving towards more predictability even in the small areas of your life? Now that can be very, very functional. I know for myself, I thrive on a schedule, I thrive on production, predictability. Now of course, I need to watch that that it doesn’t move into rigidity because then of course it can become problematic, but when life around us feels out of control, it can be very helpful to Increase some structure increase your sense of predictability. But when it comes to power, this is this is the danger, right? So while it’s an understandable enough desire to have more of a sense of control, there’s only one problem with that, right? That that’s not very realistic. We can’t control life, we cannot control life. Life is unpredictable. Life is not meant to be rigidly controlled. And while it’s important to plan and project and anticipate, ultimately, the idea of control is elusive. Okay, and so this is part of where fear crops creeps in for us. So when we don’t have a sense of control that piques our fear? So the question is what we do with our fear.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:59
So your fear in unpredictable situations is totally understandable. But what you do in response to that fear may absolutely be a problem. So a common response to fear and a sense of being out of control is to seize power as a way of decreasing fear. And so in that way, control becomes a substitute for predictability. And power becomes a solution for fear. Except that it doesn’t work. When we seize power to manage our fear, we actually only reinforce more fear. So the belief is, if I am in control or in power, then I can banish fear. But fear doesn’t work this way. And neither does life. So that’s the that’s the thing that we want to pay attention to control is not an antidote to fear. Power is not an antidote to fear. So some of what we learn from other thinkers on the relationship between fear and power is that there can be a strong correlation between the amount of fear we have and the amount of power we seek. So an individual’s motivation for power is to quiet is to acquire control over our environment. And like I said, a certain amount of that is healthy. And it’s part of that natural survival instinct. But after a point, it becomes harmful, because it right like we aren’t meant to control life. And so underlying the quest for power is fear. And the desire for power is to eliminate fear.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:36
So the more fearful you are, the more control over your environment, you believe you need in order to feel safe. And so think about that on the level of nations. Think about that on the level of a business, the more controlling a business or a government becomes, the more it stifles creativity, innovation, and its ability to adapt to change. This is a very strong finding in the research. And it is true in our personal lives. When we become more rigid and over controlled, we stifle our own creativity, our own innovation, our own ability to adapt to change, which is actually what we need in response to unpredictability and uncertainty in life. So some of those insights come to us from Robert, Evans, Wilson, and I will link to his article. So that is the relationship between fear and power, the more fear we have, the more we seek power, we seek after power as an as a way of eliminating fear, but it doesn’t work that way.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:43
The third point that I want to share with you as it relates to power is common fears related to power. So when you when you think about yourself in relation to power, you might have some strong hesitation. even thinking about power might make you uncomfortable. So some of the common fears related to power include the belief that power corrupts, that power is used to manipulate, coerce, and use others. And of course, we know that some people can intentionally seek positions of power as a way of controlling others, but what most often happens is that people seek power for good intentions to help to serve to contribute, but as they as they achieve power as they get power. It is it is more likely that it can corrupt. This is why we need to understand power so that you can keep your head on straight so that power doesn’t corrupt. Another fear is of power differentials. So when you have an unequal relationship, relative to power in relation to others, so it can seem unfair that there might be a power imbalance. But if we think about our relationships, there are many power differentials. And if managed, well, those don’t have to be problematic. So think about a therapist and a client. Right? So coming from my own field, there’s absolutely a power differential. The clinician always has more power than the client, because they are the professional, the clients paying the money, clients are often seen as vulnerable. But what makes this power differential safe? And of course, we have some exceptions where it’s not safe. That’s a real problem. But how does this power differential become safe, so that actually clients who are at a lower level of power can do some incredibly healing work? Well, we have some very firm boundaries in place, we have some very clear rules of engagement in terms of what is and is not appropriate, what is and is not shared, so that it becomes safer for the client, even with a power imbalance. Another common relationship where there is absolutely a power differential is between parents and children. Now, of course, unfortunately, we have examples of parents who abuse their power. But when use benevolently, right, parents are in a position, of course, to guide and protect their children, to discipline their children to teach their children, it needs to be this way. This is part of how we grow humans. This is how we help children to become independent functioning adults, one person needs to know more so that they can guide the other, it doesn’t mean they’re better, or anything like that. But you need to be able to embrace that power differential because when you do that you can embrace your responsibility. I think about that in terms of another relationship, a leader with team members, when you can understand what is my role here, what is my power here, so that I can use it intentionally, and I can use it for the benefit of team members, for example, then you are more able to embrace your responsibility. Think about parents who don’t embrace their responsibility to parent, that’s a real problem. That’s a very big problem. We think about laissez faire, parents who say, you know what, the child that just they are their own. They’re their own guide their own teacher, this does not end well. And so we need to use that power, productively, and for the benefit of those we lead. And so just like I said earlier, that power isn’t the problem. But the way we use it might be when it comes to these power differentials, the differential, right, the fact that there’s a power imbalance isn’t necessarily a problem. But the issue is how that power is used, whether that is for the benefit of those we lead, or against those we lead.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:22
So another common fear, really related to power is the fear of losing power. I touched on this just a little bit. But this comes from Aung San Suu Kyi, she said this in 91. So “it is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it. and so hopefully, that sounds pretty familiar based on what we’ve already been talking about. But this fear of losing power can result in leaders engaging in very self serving behaviors, to protect and preserve their power. I mean, any any day in politics gives you an example of this. And you might say I’m a bit cynical, and you’d probably be right on that. But we don’t have to look very far to see examples of this. So when when we think about the fear of losing power, this effect is very strong in environments characterized by competition and rivalry, given that such environments foster opportunistic, self interested behavior, so the fear of losing power will be more intense in competitive environments. So politics again, is a perfect example. It’s us versus them, who gets the most votes, but think about this in your work settings. So if you have a very competitive work environment, if you have an environment that is characterized by rivalry and using power negatively is going to be more likely, people are really going to work to protect their power, which typically is a loss for the whole organization. Okay. And so it’s this self serving behavior is really what we want to watch out for. And this self serving behavior is much more prevalent in competitive organizations. So we really want to be careful of that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:30
So now this discussion of power might not make you feel any better about power. But I now have some solutions for you. Right? So I want you to think about what is the work right, because power can corrupt. We all have a lot of fear around powers or power, or most of us do anyway. And we know that when people attain a certain amount of power, they work pretty hard to maintain that. And so what are we to do? What is the work? Well, I have three solutions for you today. So the first solution is to first tolerate your fear. We want you to tolerate your distress around fear and unpredictability. When we don’t manage our fear. This is one of the ways that makes us more susceptible to using power in negative ways. And so accept that life will always be challenging, remain present, I want you to remind yourself that you can only live life in this moment. So make sure your head is on straight. So you can live this moment well, which then prepares you to live the next moment well, and so on. I want you to remind yourself that you don’t need to have everything figured out, it would be so nice. And I’m totally with you on that I would love to have everything figured out. But that’s just not how life works. You just need to help yourself in this moment. distress tolerance skills can be very helpful for keeping your head in the game, it can help you to improve your decision making. And it can certainly improve emotional regulation. So the first solution is tolerate your fear, life is not meant to be rigidly controlled.
Dr. Melissa Smith 22:14
The second solution, I want you to challenge the idea that control or power are the answers to fear they are not control will lead to others not wanting to be around you. Just try it, just try I promise you, they will not want to hang around with you. Also, control is not a thing I’ve already mentioned that control is an incredibly poor tool for success. And control is horrible for respect. Because when we are trying to control others, when we are trying to control life, we send the message that we don’t trust others, we send the message that others are less than. So I want you to remind yourself that just because you don’t know how things will turn out doesn’t mean you can’t help yourself. You certainly can. You can do some flexible planning. You can collaborate with others, you can seek help, mentorship, guidance, and support. And again, you can use those distress tolerance skills to help yourself. I want you to remind yourself that you can do hard things, but you don’t have to do them alone. You weren’t meant to go it alone. Fear is vulnerable, but so is asking for help. When we look at the research around asking for help, when we ask for help, it feels shameful, it feels incredibly vulnerable. But when others ask us for help. So when we see it from the other perspective, asking for help is seen as courage. We appreciate it when others ask for help. And so recognize that you can do hard things, but you’re you aren’t meant to do it alone. And so you need to ask for help.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:01
The third solution that I have for you, is to use power benevolently. Now, I can’t emphasize this one enough. Use power for the benefit of all, use power for a greater good. You don’t use power to manage your emotions. And that’s where we get into big trouble. When it comes to fear and power. We use power and control as a way of managing our emotions. Power is not meant to be used for personal emotional management. That is indeed an abuse of power. So we use power for the benefit of all we use power for a greater good, so we want to share power instead of wielding power. So what does it mean to share power? The pie gets bigger, everyone gets a larger slice of the pie. When power is shared everyone benefits when power is shared overall power and influence increases. When power is shared creativity, collaboration and innovation thrive. And when power is shared, you create a virtuous cycle. Now, what about wielding power? When we will power the pie gets split, right, the pie gets smaller as power is wielded, because we’re trying to seek after our own, and it’s against others. So instead of the pie getting bigger, the pie gets smaller, the pie gets split. When power is wielded, everyone loses when power is wielded, influence and respect decrease. Now that’s really important to understand. When we willed our power over others, we lose influence and respect, when power is wielded fear and shame said and not only for us who’s willing the power, but for those who have the power is used against when power is builded. psychological safety plummets, right, because there’s no trust in those situations. And when power is wielded creativity and collaboration tank, because we all move into survival mode.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:17
So another tool that you can use is to utilize Brene Browns concept of power with versus power over. Now, this comes from her great dare to lead research, if you want to hear more about that, head to my website, I am a certified dare to lead facilitator, the concept of power over versus power with I think can be really helpful. So let’s think about power over. And when we think about this, this is when we are using power over others. This is all about control. It’s all about authority. It really is because I said so, do something because I said so. There is an adherence to rigid hierarchical structure. And it’s fear based. So power is how I watch my back and protect myself from the slings and arrows of others. So it’s totally fear based. It’s also shame based, it’s this belief that I have something to hide is this usually it’s a felt sense of incompetence, or lack of worth or fear of judgment. But it often shows up as overcompensation in the form of arrogance, fault finding, and other unhelpful behaviors. And as a result with power over the pie gets smaller. So one person is trying to get a bigger slice of the pie. And as a result, it becomes a competition. And everyone gets a smaller slice of the pie, it is not a great formula for leadership.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:49
So now let’s talk about the alternative which is power with. So this is when we think about sharing power. So power is shared, there’s an understanding that sharing power leads to a net increase in the power of all that is a really, really compelling finding. It is all about collaboration it’s all about a meritocracy where the best ideas win. And when it comes to your work environments, the best ideas should win, rather than the ideas coming from the person with the most power. That’s a disastrous way to make decisions. It’s a recipe for a loss of innovation and creativity. Now, when it comes to power with or sharing power, there may still be formal hierarchical structures in place that can be very helpful for organizing the system. But leaders do not use these structures as weapons against others. So that’s really the key there. The structures have their place, but they don’t dictate communication, or collaboration. So the way that you wield that power, the way that you use that power is different. So when we think about power with, it is confidence based. There’s confidence in your skills, such that you don’t have to rely on power to get things done. Now, that’s a beautiful thing. You accept your skills and your opportunities for growth and welcome the feedback from others. Power with is also collaboration based, there is nothing to hide, all ideas are welcomed, because good ideas coming from others are not a threat to one’s own identity.
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:43
So there you go. Those are three solutions to help you to really unpack power and make peace with power in your life so that you can use it for good. So very quickly, I’ll review the solutions the first solution to tolerate your fear, don’t try to control life use distress tolerance skills to help yourself. The second solution is to challenge the idea that control or power are the answers to fear they are not. You need this is where reassurance and encouragement and self compassion can make a really big difference. And solution three is, of course, to use power but never know benevolently. I’m having a hard time with that word today. Power is not meant to be used to manage your emotions. But we really want to focus on power using power for the benefit of all for greater good, and we really want to think about sharing power instead of wielding power and utilizing Bernie Browns power with versus power over. And that those those solutions can really help you to not be afraid of power, to not use power to manage your emotions, and to really embrace leadership where it might show up for you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 31:06
So head on over to the website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/powerunpacked one more time. That’s www.drmelissasmith.com/powerunpacked. So I hope that you’re finding value in the podcast. If you would take a moment to share a review on iTunes or Spotify wherever you listen, I would so greatly appreciate it. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai