Naming The Ways We (Unintentionally) Give Away Our Power

When was the last time you felt powerful? And what was the source of that power?

Power — the capacity to direct what happens next — matters. A lot.

Power shapes our relationships because, when we lack power, we can’t negotiate for our own interests. When we have power, we can assert what matters to us and have it count. Power shapes our careers, too; determining if we’ll be ignored, or whether we can contribute that which only we can. And so we know that power shapes whether we can make a difference, and what kind of impact we have.

Most of us know power matters but, sadly, most of us don’t know when we’re giving away our power, often without noticing. We do it when we place the source of power outside ourselves, instead of centering on the place of power from where we create value, onlyness.

That’s why I started a workshop a few weeks ago with the questions above: to recall a specific moment of feeling powerful and to name the source of that power.

Try It Yourself

If you want to make the most of what follows post, I recommend doing a short exercise before you continue reading. It’ll take all of 2 minutes, I promise.

Recall a moment, answering, “When was the Last Time You Felt Powerful?” Think of a specific scene and try recalling it vividly. Where were you? Who was with you? What was happening? What were the smells? What was it, exactly, that made you feel powerful?

Then, name the source of that power. In whatever words you want. Don’t worry about finding the right words or whether you know the many theoretical constructs of power. Just, in a few words, name the power source.

Ready?

Okay.

In the workshop, we (Ruchika Tulshyan, Michelle Marchiano and I) asked everyone to name the source of their power. These are some of the words the 100 participants of the Onlyness workshop came up with as their source of power.

They include states of being like:

  • Desire
  • Free
  • Fierce
  • Joy
  • Purpose(ful)
  • Strong

These words suggested they were in that spot in the world where only they stood; that place of power unshakably one’s own.

But there were also several words that were worrisome. Worrisome, as I explained to the group, in that they made me pause. Not because they are “right” or “wrong” sources of power, but because certain sources are relative and built upon hierarchical power. I told the group that if someone came to me, saying the source of their power came from these worrisome things, I’d want to explore it further. Because, when we believe our power comes from outside ourselves (or because one is better than others) we might have accepted a framework that limits our own power.

If (or when) we believe our power comes from hierarchical status or organizational status, we can find ourselves walking away from that powerful place of Onlyness.

Worrisome Words

What were the worrisome words? And why? Some of these might surprise you, as they did the group, but let’s work through them.

GOALS. If you believe goals are what make you powerful, then, you are powerful only if you’ve achieved your goals. Goals can create an endless drive to constantly be doing. It’s accepting one’s worth is tied to the state of doing, instead of the state of being. And, what happens when you miss the goal? Perhaps even through no fault of your own? Or because the goal was the wrong one and you learned something new midway through a project? Instead of celebrating the way you learned something important, you could flog yourself for not achieving a particular milestone. Taken to its extreme, goals as a source of power can lead to workaholism instead of wisdom.

One leader asked me to dig into this deeper as the workshop was wrapping up, because she really loved her goals. I offered her another way of looking at this: goals are like horsewhips. You can buy into the notion that the horse runs harder because of whipping, but what if you accepted that thoroughbreds actually like to run fast?

EDUCATION. While it’s true that knowing certain things can be the key to solving a tough problem, it’s equally true that education isn’t necessarily the only way to know things. Education just as often filters people out or trains them to think a certain way so fresh takes are eliminated. (Just today, I read a piece in the Atlantic on how a Texas university used standardized testing to slow down racial integration; education as a credentialing tool has a long and problematic history)

I’ve written before about the 15-year-old who found a new approach to diagnosing pancreatic cancer without the “right” credentials” And, just a few weeks ago, the Frito Lay Flamin’ Hot Cheetos story was picked up by Eva Longoria as the director of an upcoming film. It’s the story of how Richard Montañez went from cleaning toilets to being one of the most creative executives in the food industry. Not because he was the most “educated” but because he brought his perspective to the table. So, the bottom line is education can be useful but not necessary to how you offer what only you offer. You might be “smart” but someone else by education terms might be deemed “smart-er” (and, there is always someone who is more -er than you).

EXPERTISE/AUTHORITY. These are similar to education. If someone has more years of expertise in a field, does it mean the expertise you bring is less than theirs? If she has more specific years in a particular discipline, and you have expertise in an adjacent discipline, is she more powerful than you? Will you defer to her if she uses more “authoritative” words even though you bring a perspective “only” you have? What is it that grants them more authority? Is it their rank? Then we’re implying those “above” someone else has something “more” to offer when the reality is, we all have something to offer.

LEADER. If you define your power as coming from a particular role, then what happens to your power if the title is removed? Does it change your power? Probably. But if we’re leading change, or leading an idea, the only thing that matters is our actions, our conversations, our work. Are you leading an idea? Or are you a leader because of a role on a chart in an organizational flow?

RECOGNITION. Since grade school, most of us have been aiming for gold stars. In corporations, those look like founders’ awards or Sales Recognition Clubs. Besides the fact that appreciation is usually expressed towards those who get most of the credit anyway, seeking appreciation from others is a way to give the keys to your satisfaction to someone else. Instead, what if we measured success not by money or gold stars, but by the value we contributed? Or by the way we showed up or whether we helped someone else? Self-validation allows you to stop seeking permission and approval from others, two more ways we cede power.

DATA. How many times have you been a part of inventing the future, and someone asked you to prove something new was even possible? I’ve had it happen a bunch. I remember one executive asking me to prove something was possible. When it was a brand new thing that had never been tried before.

The point of asking for data? To make you jump through hoops (often ridiculous ones). This is not to say you can’t run pilots to test parts of a hypothesis, but almost all things future-forward don’t have complete data behind them.

Accidentally Giving Away Power

Any of us can unwittingly give away our power by how we conceive of its source. If we see power as something external, comparative, or situational, we can find ourselves flat-footed and at a loss. If we understand the place of power that is entirely our own, we can always be centered in ways we can add value.

Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of people — a lot of you — talk about how you feel limited at work. You feel less than powerful. And you tell me stories.

You describe how you find yourself trying to adapt to our environment; aiming to fit in. Or you see who is already powerful and try and mimic their model. Or you try and rise to higher and higher ranks, hoping to bend the will of the organization to your view. As they share specifics, I notice (and the storyteller can’t usually spot) when they’ve given away their power.

When we accept things like authority, expertise, data, goals, or education as what makes someone powerful, we might also be putting ourselves in a position to give away our power.

This is not to say organizational or hierarchical power doesn’t have value. It offers a certain clarity; to know what authority one has, as clearly defined by others.

The downside, however, is when one’s power is assigned by others, then identity or power can be taken away just as easily as it is granted. It’s the backstory for why many people feel “lost” if they lose their job. Getting one’s power as a result of being a part of the “in-group” is also satisfying. You get to shape norms.

Of course, quite often this can mean repeating or mimicking what has already been established rather than finding a way to be authentically oneself. The downside of this is that there’s a narrow range of ways to “lead” for example.

Onlyness-based power centers correctly on what you have to ffer. Power rooted in Onlyness means claiming that distinct spot in the world where only you stand. This has the upside of being distinctly one’s own, but it also requires the person knows what they care about. What is it you want to fight for? Self-awareness and courage are prerequisites. It is a state of being that is yours to define and develop.

Your Onlyness Invitation

I ended the session with an invitation. And so I invite you, also, to stand in that spot in the world where only you stand. This spot of Onlyness is sometimes hard to see because it lies both beneath and within us.

Sometimes you don’t recognize this spot as valuable. You see the negative circumstances you’ve experienced as something to be ashamed of instead of part of the imperfections that make you perfectly and distinctly yourself. Every experience contributes to your perspective, purpose, and (maybe even) passion.

And for sure you’ll be challenged to leave this spot. There will be people who suggest that who you are isn’t already valuable (or even necessary). They suggest you go over there and be like them. And because they say it so kindly, you think they must be trying to help. It takes a long time to learn that their helpfulness isn’t helpful. That even if they see something as “true”, it doesn’t need to be your truth.

Some will try and push you off your spot, sometimes bumping you accidentally, other times actively shoving you. You might get disoriented when this happens. But know you can rebound back to where you started, like Weeble toys that “wobble but won’t fall down” — always returning to their center, ready for the next adventure.

Onlyness is that foundation, that center. It is who you are, what you are, where you are. It is not static. It is the place where you belong. A place from which to be, from which to step, and where you can take a stand. You can return to this place at any time. During the next meeting, or in the next phone call, or wherever you are.

Onlyness is how you get valued. So you can add value. It is never relative or external. It is the source of all ideas.

2 Responses:

  1. Dave Arnold. September 20, 2019 at 11:11 am  

    Nilofer, this is a very interesting topic in my field of executive recruiting. If you define Power to mean the “capacity to direct what happens next” I have a ton of power in my day to day dealings. On the other hand the outcomes are in ways completely out of my control. This is a great meditation for the weekend, thanks for sharing. Dave

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 20, 2019 at 3:27 pm  

      Dave, it seems to me that’s all any of have. I was just texting with a friend who had to go to the ER because she was having so much FOMO over something that she had given herself an anxiety attack. She was not invited to something and so she had worked herself into an anxiety attack. And I was reminding her that we need to define the metrics so we do what we can / and need to and then the rest is the rest. Right?

      Reply

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