By 3rd December 2019 No Comments

Holding others in high esteem, having regard and respect for others and being in awe of someone are all situations that can leave us feeling less than personally powerful in the presence of other people, especially if they are more senior or powerful than we think we are.

I recall a conversation I had with an executive who was considered extremely high performing, until they interacted with the chairman – at which point a tongue-tied, uncertain and less than impressive person appeared to take over.

Peter Hawkins and Nick Smith, in their book Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy: Supervision and Development, 2007) use the term “deference threshold” to describe how we have a threshold, or a trigger, point, when we find ourselves ‘out of relationship’ with someone, when we feel we are not getting along as we intend. This trigger then causes a fight (aggressive behaviour) or flight (submissive behaviour) reaction. It is a very interesting exercise to work through one’s own trigger points and work out what reactions we have to these circumstances. When we are aware of the triggers and pay conscious attention to them, we have the power of “conscious choice”. . This powerful and empowering choice of how to react to a situation is often assertive and more successful than the reactions we may, more instinctively have, when we are triggered into situations that leave us feeling less powerful.

Assertive leadership is neither aggressive nor subservient and is an area where I often notice a gender difference.

A female executive once, when discussing the origin of her unease with assertive use of authority, described a personal performance expectation embedded from an early age to be “a good little girl” – defined as good little girls know their place and are not demanding – ‘seen and not heard’. If being assertive is seen as being demanding or speaking up, it is not difficult to see how subservient and often deferential behaviour may result.

If, on the other hand, being assertive means embracing the authority that is inherent in the role we are performing, and employing that assertiveness  authentically, humbly and wisely, it may lead to a very different set of behaviours and outcomes. 

Struggling to come to terms with exercising authority and using power is often deeply rooted in a reluctance to think of oneself in terms of being “more senior/better/more experienced” than others. We may even be confusing a need to stay humble with the appropriate use personal power. 

Male executives more frequently  have to work to develop strategies for being assertive without appearing aggressive. This is often rooted in having had role models who exercised aggressive or dictatorial authority – now long outmoded and proven to be less than successful.

Power in itself is an interesting concept as it can take many forms. Let us focus on personal power rather than positional power here. Using our authority wisely can only come after we accept that we have personal power in the first place.

Reading an organisation well and acting with personal integrity can get things done in the best possible way for the organisation and your own satisfaction. Jim Collins  (Good to Great, 2001) suggests using your power in service of the organisation: The balancing act between “fierce resolve and humility”, to use his phrase. This leads us to consider “if your leadership flows first and foremost from inner character and integrity of ambition, then you can justly ask people to lend themselves to your organisation and its mission.”

This requires us to work out what kind of leader we want to be and what we want others to say about us.

Ideas to consider:

  • Wear your authority humbly, lightly and authentically
  • Manage conflict by dealing with it assertively,  without aggression or retreating
  • Know your buttons: Recognise personal patterns, triggers and paradigms that make you behave in certain ways
  • Learn to override Fight and Flight by staying with the relationship and balancing conflicting emotions
  • Read: The Games People Play (Eric Berne) and keep relationships on an Adult-to-Adult level 
  • Develop your own brand of effective and authentic leadership
  • Managing and living with difference gives us choice and even an advantage in some situations
  • Write your own retirement speech – then sit back and honestly assess how close you are living this image of yourself – be brave and ask a few trusted friends for their feedback too

I don’t believe many people set out to be difficult. If someone is being difficult, see if you can figure out ‘why’ before reacting. Create a little space between the experience and your reaction. Choose to behave in an authentic and effective manner, even when someone is appearing to be difficult or obstructive


Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash