Address the elephant in the room – delegation and authority

“What lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.” — Aristotle

Power is a curious beast.

It can sometimes be wild, and others tamed. Power is not absolute. In the workplace, we usually confuse titles with authority. However, formal authority is not the only way power comes to play.

Power can harm or unblock great work. When there’s a void, do your team members take action on their own hands? Or do they wait for you to make the decision?

Your team probably feels powerless more often than not. Unfortunately, no one addresses the elephant in the room until it’s too late. You must kickstart the conversation.

The Power Gap

“Knowledge will give you power, but character respect.” — Bruce Lee

Power is an illusion, as I wrote here — it lies in the eye of the beholder.

Managers usually believe they delegate much more than they actually do. On the other hand, employees feel they have less power than they actually do.

Two key reasons cause this power gap:

  • Most people interpret power differently
  • They view power as something fixed — some have it, and others don’t.

Power is more than having formal authority. I conducted a survey that validates what I see firsthand when facilitating a team offsite: everyone has a different interpretation of what power is.

Some believe power is political influence — the ability to influence senior management’s decisions. Others, associate it to the authority to make decisions without having to consult their bosses. Many believe that power is imposing one’s will over others — you get to convince people to do what you want. A few view power as the ability to punish others — people obey because they are afraid of the consequences.

How does your team view power?

Power is neither bad or good — we can use it in healthy or unhealthy ways.

Powerful people are more likely to take decisive actions and increase their chances of achieving a goal. However, power quickly gets to our head. Powerful people feel free of punishment — their overconfidence decreases their self-awareness.

Power is fluid, not fixed — it varies depending on the circumstances.

One person might be more powerful than various individuals on their own. But, if they join forces, they become more powerful than that one person.

CEOs have the most authority, but if all their direct reports resign at the same time, the power is gone. You can’t run a company without a leadership team.

‘Regular’ employees can gain power by speaking up — those who observe what others are missing become more valuable. Ideas are another way to earn power. A janitor invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and later became an executive at PepsiCo.

I know. Not all organizations provide a space for people to speak up with candor or share their ideas. Some people abuse their power position. And others have the authority but prefer not to act — they let chaos unfold because of their inaction.

The other side of the equation is people playing the victim role and stating they are powerless. Having power requires to be accountable — the “I don’t have power” argument is an easy way to get off the hook.

I remember coaching a team from very senior executives from one of the top American banks. They have come up with a revolutionary idea but were hitting a wall — their EVP didn’t want to give them the green light. The problem is that they were fighting the battle individually. I advised them to act as one; to offer their collective resignation if he didn’t approve their plan. They became powerful by showing their conviction — they were willing to lose their jobs.

Power can be used to suppress others or to uplift them. Healthy power promotes empathy, creativity, and collaboration — it empowers both ourselves and others.

How can your team benefit from viewing power as fluid?

Healthy Power Increases Performance

Power can be used for individual or collective purposes — healthy power benefits the common good.

Here’s how power can increase team performance.

1. Uplift others

Managers who are afraid of losing their power, try to manipulate and weaken others. Healthy power is about helping your team show up at their best. You rise by lifting others.

2. Unblock tensions

Lack of cross-functional collaboration is driven by individual goals and lack of integration. The power of Psychological Safety encourages people to speak up — team members can address tensions with honesty and empathy.

3. Unblock projects

Sometimes teams get stuck. Lack of resources or the ability to influence other areas (legal, finance, you name it) makes it almost impossible to move forward. Those who hold formal authority are responsible for helping unblock what’s holding their team back.

4. Encourage Experimentation

Building a culture of change requires to give space to people to make mistakes. The fear of failure can be based on perception or lack of clear rules. How does your organization let go of control and allow people to try new things? How do you remove the fear of being punished? Failure is powerful when we can learn from it.

5. Personal development

76% of executives feel they were not prepared for their jobs, according to McKinsey. Distributing authority across your team — regardless the seniority — allows people to practice and learn progressively. People don’t need to wait to get a title to familiarize themselves with making decisions.

Have that Conversation

There is a definite shift of power in the workplace.

People are no longer supposed to act like in an assembly line and follow orders like if they were in the (traditional) military or Industrial Revolution-designed organizations. Anyone has the ability and responsibility to lead, as I wrote here.

True power lies within everyone; your team shouldn’t need permission to do their best work.

1. Have the conversation

Get together to address the elephant in the room. Inviting your team to talk about power will surprise everyone. Expect people to be reluctant first. Power is a topic that few organizations address openly. Of course, your team might be suspicious. Explain why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve.

Vulnerability always pays off. Start by acknowledging that the way power is distributed might be hurting the team, that you want to hear what’s not working and what can be improved. Take the first step. Be candid and human.

2. Address the power gap

Now it’s time for them to speak up. How is power holding the team back? How do they view your use of authority? How does your organization use power for healthy or unhealthy reasons? What are their expectations? What needs to change?

Pay attention and listen. Capture everything without judging. A precise assessment is vital to understand the gap between you and the team as well as among the different members.

3. Power to the team

Building on the above, what does the team need to move change forward? ‘Power’ could mean support, clarity, rules, resources, or simply to openly acknowledge the issue — addressing the elephant in the room will get rid of many (wrong) perceptions.

If the team needs you to delegate more authority (not just tasks), address it as a collective fix. The idea is not to shift power from one individual to another, but to the team itself.

4. The Purpose of Power

The team must come up with a common view on power — to uplift each other and unleash collective performance. If they ask for more power, what do they want to achieve?

Power needs to be connected to a larger purpose. What are we trying to accomplish? What drives us? How can we use our individual and collective power to achieve our mission?

5. Power and accountability

Having responsibility is not a status symbol. Power comes with responsibility — autonomy allows people to manage their actions, but also to be accountable for the results. Contrary to most managers beliefs, the more autonomy we provide people, the more responsible they become.

Of course, it takes time for things to settle. Especially in those organizations that have traditionally kept power limited to a few. Transitions can be messy, but the result is worth it.

Power can unblock or hinder your team performance. Address the elephant in the room — it’s time to have a candid conversation about power.

Upgrade Your Team’s Mindset

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It’s Time to Talk with Your Team about Power was originally published in Stretch for Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.