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How to work with a power tripper

BARBARA CAIL AO
Barbara Cail AO founded Chief Executive Women in 1985 and was the organisation’s first President.

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WITH A POWER TRIPPER

The pursuit and holding of power is as old as mankind. It pervades every part of our daily lives. As women working in business, the professions or academia we must constantly tune our personal antennae to remain alert to the subtle and inappropriate uses of power.

Acquiring the skills needed to respond to a power tripper is vital for anyone who wants to move their career forward as a leader. Awareness of this personality type will help you soften your knee-jerk response to those whose fragile egos rely on exerting their power. Learning how to respond properly may well be mutually beneficial for you and the person trying to make your life a misery. Being aware of and learning from these encounters can also improve your personal effectiveness in any given situation.

We all know that people use power more than rewards and threats to influence us into particular action. They use power tactics.

I have professionally mentored top executives in corporate Australia for the last 15 years. The stand-out personal workplace issue I encounter is “dealing with power players”. These are self-serving people who enjoy applying power tactics without commensurate responsibility; and the emotionally immature people who are addicted to constant attention. They may be someone who enjoys giving orders for no other reason than to inconvenience and control another. There are many variations on the theme, but I’m sure you recognise the type.

My mentees have all been highly educated, many with double and triple degrees relating to their chosen path. But intelligence and professional expertise don’t always equate to an ability to deal with some of the more challenging personalities you encounter in your career.

I have often seen the erosion of a mentee’s emotional equilibrium by a power player who is asserting their authority. In some cases, the effects have been so severe they have limited the ability of my mentees to effectively fulfill their professional roles. Over the years I have built a very clear profile of the kind of people who play power games.

Power games

Power games usually involve an individual who is superior because of their positional power but lacks the talent and capacity required for the role. Many cases on which I have worked have involved mentees who were outstanding performers but were being ambushed on a daily basis by someone in a superior role. The self-interested boss was driven to point this out and regularly reinforce it using their highly-developed expertise as a power tripper.

In one case, my mentee was the fulcrum of the entire company because of her ability to negotiate and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Yet her manager was fixated on being seen and acknowledged as The Boss. In meetings, he constantly belittled her with put-downs both sharp and subtle, to the point where she felt harassed and completely worn down emotionally by his behaviour. Sadly, she deferred to his position for several years and participated in this damaging dance they did together, because he was The Boss.

The manager was clearly confident that his power over her was strong and that the dance would prevail. He couldn’t see that if she left the company her skill, insights and connections would go with her and the company would suffer. He knew her role was significant and that she was an important member of the team but, paradoxically, her importance was also his problem. His immaturity and self focus blinded him to her huge value to the company.

Of course, the inevitable happened: she was poached by a competitor. When she left, so did seven senior executives who reported to her and refused to stay and work for the power tripper. Eventually the man who was so desperate to be acknowledged as powerful had dragged the company into disarray, and he was fired by the board.

It is not an unusual story, and unfortunately it is one you can find repeated in organisations across the country. There are power trippers everywhere, and not all of them are men. So learning to recognise them and understand their motivation is an important management tool you must carry.

Tips for handling a power tripper

Here’s my advice for those times you feel the prick to your psyche of someone attempting to score attention for themselves, maybe at your expense.

1. Ask yourself why they need to do this at this time. Stifle any desire for a rapid response and analyse their motive. It maybe their need for self promotion; it could be fear that they know they are under-performing; or perhaps the answer is their narcissistic personality.

2. Quietly observe the Power Tripper’s performance – for that is exactly what it is – and you will easily and quickly pick up on their neediness. It is then a matter of filing this information away in your emotional armory so you can adjust your own responses accordingly.

3. Niccolo Machiavelli has a reputation for evil in his use of power. This is untrue. He was able to understand and negotiate his way around the use of power. In 1517 he set out his philosophy and analysis of power in The Prince, which was in effect a guide for his boss, Lorenzo De Medici. It is worth reading.

4. Become a people watcher. Make it a sport, and observe who is needy of power. Watching and listening is more powerful than “performing”. As Margaret Thatcher reportedly said of power, “if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

5. The ideal outcome is to understand why the power tripper needs to do what he or she does. Acknowledge and accept this. Work with it.

My advice goes hand in hand with one aspect of your own ongoing development as an executive, that of managing your emotions. It can be tough for some of us. However, as women, we have a moral duty to keep breaking down the power barriers – often erected by men because, for now, they hold the majority of senior roles.

When I started the networking group which became Chief Executive Women nearly 30 years ago, it was extremely difficult to find women who owned power – understood it and knew how to wield it properly. It is still hard to find them. There’s no doubt we still face an enormous challenge to increase women’s ownership of power.

The solution is to keep chipping away at the power blockages. We can learn and implement personal strategies to be able to face down a power tripper. In doing so, each one of us is making a personal and professional contribution to the advancement of women and the equitable allocation of power in society.