Cultivate Power: 6 Tips for Giving Control Back to Your Team

by | May 8, 2017 | approachable leadership

The Power Dynamic

I just took my family to see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. It was nearly as much fun as Volume 1, which is saying a lot. Sequels are awfully hard to pull off – especially when you are doing an encore of such a genre-busting hit. It was really fun. Although I am worried about how Stan Lee is going to get home… (watch the credits to the end if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

The central theme of Guardians Volume 2 (don’t worry, no spoilers) is the same as Volume 1: one individual seeks unlimited power over the universe. But that character can’t gain unlimited power without help. And in the end this lust for power undoes the villain. Sure, it’s a pretty tired formula. But it’s a message that bears repeating, because it is one we leaders struggle with every single day.

Leaders all struggle with this exact same power dynamic. The only way for us to truly accomplish our goals is if our teams feel powerful too. Otherwise they won’t feel like helping you (they’ll be disengaged). Or worse, they’ll actively try to foil your plans (those are the actively disengaged).

Now if your plans are for domination of the universe I suppose this paradox is a good thing. But if your plans are the more positive kind this paradox is a real problem. You want a team of people who feel that they have control over their work. Their development. Their contribution to the company’s mission. You want this. I can guarantee it. That is because I know no leader wants the opposite:

Employees who experience stress, anxiety, shame, and poor health.

These are all signs of powerlessness.

The more you take away an employee’s control over her work – the more you micro-manage – the less she gives. The less she cares. Because at that point her work is no longer a reflection of her own capabilities to create something of value. It’s about giving you what you want. Because you’re the one in charge. You have the power. And before you know it, that employee is disengaged. She experiences stress when you want her to experience excitement. She experiences shame when you want her to experience development feedback.

This power dynamic isn’t just important at work. I recently read an article in Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine on power in education. It explains why we should want students to take control over their own education. And how to be the kind of teacher (or leader) who uses his position of power to create a sense of power in others.

6 Tips for Giving Control Back to Your Team

Use a strengths-based approach. 

This is about more than just putting a positive spin on things when a team member messes up. Let’s face it, sometimes you just can’t do that. But when things go wrong you want to focus on how to improve in the future. This conversation should not be about blame and looking backward. Instead it should be focused on applying what this person does well in the future. How do you communicate with your team on a daily basis? Shine a light on your team’s strengths and they will continue to develop them on their own. They will feel valuable and capable. You want an innovative organization? There’s your first step.

Identify your biases. 

“Any biases we harbor against groups of [people] can manifest in our behavior, giving some [team members] more power and opportunities than others.” The tricky part here though is that biases are often unconscious. You may have a hard time recognizing them in yourself. Our latest Learn and Lead Huddle Module asks leaders to think about the “triggers” that can send us down the wrong path. Knowing that you can be triggered without knowing it leaves you with two options. Option one: some serious soul searching. Option two: allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask for help recognizing your biases. Ask your team for feedback and encourage them to be brutally honest. If you’re lucky (and approachable) you’ll have at least one or two who will help you develop.

Be a warm demander. 

We just wrote a whole article on the benefits of leader warmth. Check that out here. But this goes hand-in-hand with addressing your biases. Your biases trigger the “Villain Assumption” with your team. You never want that. You want to hold high positive expectations for all of your team members. They feel it when you don’t. That’s a recipe for lower engagement and lower quality work. Simply put, the assumptions you make about your team matter. Read our most recent article on the Hero Assumption here.

Create individualized learning experiences. 

You do this by getting to know your team members. What are their interests? Where do they see themselves going? How would they like to develop professionally? Then, ask yourself, what can I do to help them get there? Not only does this further encourage them to take control of their own development. It also shows that you care. That you don’t see him or her as a cog in the machine. Each member of your team brings something special. It’s a shame if you neglect to notice and lose something really rare in the process.

Foster ongoing and active reflection. 

Most of us know when we’re not meeting our own expectations. We feel it in our gut. And then we decide how much it really matters. Be the kind of leader that creates opportunities for and encourages self-assessment. Do that, and your team will hold themselves accountable. They will take more control over their own quality of work. And you will begin to experience the power paradox in reverse – the less you exert control (or power) the better your team performs.

Focus on modeling and practicing the “Big Five.” 

Dacher Keltner, the founding director of Greater Good, wrote a book called The Power Paradox. In it, he outlines five social tendencies that encourage power in others. After all, he says, “enduring power comes from a focus on others.” Here they are. They may surprise you.

  1. Enthusiasm. There’s much to be said about creating a fun and energetic environment. If you are excited about the work you and your team are doing, it will radiate off of you and onto them.
  2. Kindness. People work harder for those they like. Plain and simple. This is another reason to get to know your team members. Research shows that “it’s easier to be kind to people we know well than to those outside our immediate social circle.”
  3. Focus. Have an open conversation with all members of your team about your values and goal for the year. And then keep those commitments and expectations front and center. When you lose focus on a goal (or even when you appear to lose focus), they will lose focus. They will think it doesn’t actually matter that much. This happens all the time.
  4. Calmness. Most people don’t enjoy working under pressure. Reduce stress and increase quality work by never being the reason everything is an emergency.
  5. Openness. Everyone works better together when they are more in tune with each other’s thoughts and feelings. Lead by example. Encourage the sharing of ideas – good or bad. Not only will people gain confidence in their own ideas. You will have created an environment where your team knows each other that much better. Where they feel comfortable speaking up when they need.

How would you describe the power dynamic at your work place? How about among your team? Do you think that they feel in control of their work? Are you too biased to tell – who can you ask for candid feedback?