Positional Power and Unintended Influence

It's tough to handle this fortune and fame Everybody's so different, I haven't changed ~ Joe Walsh

It was spring. That winter, like this last one, had been harsh. Internally, my client was trying to lead his company to change...to a better tomorrow. He had been working to give his people more autonomy, more agency, and more internal influence. He kept waiting for that cultural winter to abate, for people to thaw out and enjoy working…but it, like winter, happened on a schedule he couldn’t control.

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” he sighed as we ate lunch. “I keep asking people to take responsibility from me. I’m building structures to let them make their own decisions. I am giving people autonomy. But when I get into a meeting with them, they still defer to me. If I offer a suggestion, it becomes a marching order. It’s just a suggestion!”

Recently, another client of mine had a project that gained a rare visit from the CEO. He came and spoke with the team and they had a good time. When he left, the team was energized and excited to keep working. The CEO was excited too.

The CEO was so excited that he couldn’t stop thinking about the project. So, on the plane ride home, he sent them an email saying how excited he was and giving them some thoughts he had about what was going on.

Instantly, people sprung into action - making the thoughts of the CEO the primary focus of the team. The team was excited to please the CEO, but were also a little annoyed. They already had enough work on a complicated project and now they suddenly had to respond to all these new demands. This made people a little uneasy, they were happy to help on the one hand, but annoyed on the other.

Then my client had the wherewithal to actually write the CEO back!

She asked a simple question: “Those things in your e-mail, did you intend for us to consider them or act on them immediately?”

The CEO wrote back, as you might expect, “They were just thoughts, I was excited about the product and our meeting. You guys build what makes sense.”

No one was born a leader. No one was born a manager. We’re all just people.

One of the hardest things for a CEO to accept is that our positional power extends well beyond simply giving orders or being able to fire people or controlling the purse strings.

Your Words Incite Action

When we are in management, our words become law much faster than we realize - and this is very hard for us to counteract. Those who are “under” us have to discern when we are having an idle thought and when we are issuing an order. They will usually err on the side of “issuing an order”.

When we have positional power, that power manifests itself as influence. Influence may be something we can wield, but it’s energy. It discharges on its own quite frequently.

Simply being in a meeting can and will alter the ideas expressed and acted upon. Simply writing an excited email, where you are honestly enthusiastic, can have negative repercussions.

One problem I’ve run into many times is that in leadership one of your main jobs is to be constantly identifying options for the future of your organization. You must constantly be devoting time to investigating new markets, products, structures, business models, partnerships, and so forth. Discussing this with “staff” can create confusion, they don’t know if your new thought is some flighty “Hey let’s derail everything and do this!” or just an idle thought or something to be lightly investigated or maybe even just something to ponder.

They are looking to you for actionable advice. They want your words to compel action. That’s all well and good, but enlightened leaders and managers know that they cannot compel all the action, that healthy companies have ideas coming from all directions, and that sometimes a leader needs to just talk.

There is no solution at the end of this blog post other than a call for awareness. As leaders, look to set up intentional structures that let you participate in as much of a peer-to-peer role as possible, but be aware that you cannot ever fully be a peer due to your positional power. Don’t shy away from this. Just understand that that the dynamic is real and impacts your company greatly.