This post was original published on Forbes’ online Leadership blog on 11/19/17.
Most women leaders I’ve worked with, including many with tremendous leadership talent, are uncomfortable with the use of power and find it tough to endure the associated interpersonal stresses. But gaining power over people and resources is what allows you to get good things done. It’s worth getting comfortable with it.
I’ve also met a handful of women who have reached the top echelons of power— CEO, department chair, organizational president— who seem very comfortable with the mechanics and psychological demands of being in a power position. They can even appear to be invulnerable.
But for women who have not yet developed a rhinoceros-hide shell, but still are excited by the rewards of leadership, here are ten problem attitudes and behaviors that many women (and some more sensitive men) new to leadership often have in relation to power—and how to deal with them:
1. Discomfort with having the power to decide, leading to over-reliance on consensus-building. A good leader gathers as much data and input as she needs to reach a decision and then makes it decisively. You’ll need to learn to tolerate (ideally, calmly ignore) the surprise, anger or generalized grumbling that may arise among those whose opinions were not followed.
2. Over-responsiveness to other peoples’ agendas at the expense of preserving time and energy to pursue your own. Always keep your own agenda and goals in mind. Women tend to be adept at continuously scanning the environment and subliminally registering other people’s needs. And then thinking they need to do something about them! Too often I’ve seen women leaders listen willingly to other peoples’ agendas without even noticing they are sidelining their own priorities.
3. Hesitation about taking actions that will make other people unhappy. Leadership inevitably involves making many decisions that make some people unhappy.
Some necessary decisions, like letting someone go, are obviously painful. But even everyday decisions that reject someone’s opinion or don’t meet someone’s wishes cause emotional pain. Women are hardwired or socialized (or probably some of both) to monitor the social environment. So, we tend to be more aware of negative emotions in the people around us. As a leader, you need to be willing to cause unhappiness and not let it drain your energy or distort your focus.
4. No (or insufficient) “empathic wall.” Empathy is a vital capacity for successful leadership. Without it you can’t communicate with your team or customers, manage competently or anticipate problems. However, too much empathy is a liability. It’s vital to be able to stand in another person’s shoes, but it’s equally vitally to get your own back on quickly. This requires a functioning “empathic wall”—the ability to appropriately screen out other peoples’ emotional responses so that your system doesn’t overload.
5. Difficulty visualizing yourself as a leader. If you don’t see yourself as a leader, you will miss leadership opportunities. Think about what a leader does operationally– takes initiative, sets the agenda, makes decisions, starts things, crafts strategy. When you face a problematic situation, think, “What should a leader do in this situation?” Then remind yourself to go ahead and do it, even if you haven’t been officially designated as “leader”. Displaying leadership activity is what gets you recognized and promoted to leadership positions. Let’s say you see a major problem you want to bring to your boss’s attention. Instead of saying “What do you want to do about this,” write a memo to your boss saying you see a problem, have a specific solution to propose and would like to go ahead and implement it.
6. Lack of familiarity and/or comfort with the social psychology of power. We work in social systems that have certain power cues that signify leadership. Women often don’t exhibit these cuing behaviors. They include: setting and controlling the agenda for meetings, physically holding on to the chair’s position when leading a meeting, initiating and especially ending discussions and having people come to you at your convenience (time and place) for an appointment rather than the reverse. Instead of emailing “Are you available Tuesday at 10? Where do you want to meet?” say “Let’s meet in my office at 10 Tuesday.” This doesn’t mean you’re a jerk. But leave it up to the other person to respond, “Sorry,Tuesday at 10 doesn’t work for me, is there another time you’re free?” if they need to.
7. Being vague about what you expect of people, both above and below you. Follow up on meetings with a memo outlining what was agreed on and next steps you are going to take and those you expect others to take.
8. Waiting for permission. This one is self-explanatory. Don’t do it. Within reason. Plough ahead with your ideas. When permission or a go-ahead is essential, push for it and try to frame the matter as a done deal: “I’m ready to put the new plan in place. Let me know if you have any issue you want to discuss.”
9. Lack of practice thinking and acting strategically about power. Power is a resource that needs to be managed, allocated intelligently and protected. Try to map out who is going to react to your exercising control, what the immediate impact will be and what longer term effects might be. Plan two or three steps ahead.
10. Failure to take credit. Some of the leaders I admire most are those who publicly and regularly give specific credit to the people on their team. But don’t confuse expressing gratitude and encouragement to others with relinquishing the credit you deserve. It will take your breath away when a peer leader or boss takes credit for your work, but it does happen. Try to prevent this by publicly claiming your own work before somebody else does.
Without power, you can’t chart a course, alter an outcome or get resources to bring your ideas to life. You will not be transformed into a Machiavellian monster if you let yourself get comfortable with it.