Owning your power as a manager

View from Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. A boulder is visible in the foreground with some pine trees below it, and trees in autumn colors and ponds are visible in the distance. The sky is blue with wisps of clouds.

Recently I’ve noticed a pattern of managers having a hard time admitting or accepting that they hold power within their organization – specifically, that they hold power over others. I want to take a little space here to talk through why that’s hard, and why I need you to own the power you already hold. And I’m using the word “power” intentionally here – sometimes it manifests as influence, which is a more comfortable word for some people, but it’s crucial that we maintain awareness of power dynamics that exist whether we want them to or not.

I’ve heard arguments that managers, especially middle managers, don’t really have power because they are beholden to so many other factors: your organization’s culture can override your personal influence, other people can override your decisions, company policy is set by someone else, etc. Here’s the thing: power doesn’t have to be absolute in order to exist. Even boards and CEOs have limits on their power, even if the space between those limits is bigger than for someone managing a small team within a larger org.

What does that power look like?

Recognizing our power is easier when we have specific things to look out for. Here are a few that are common to most managers:

  • Literal hiring/firing responsibilities.

If this is part of your job description, it’s the most obvious/direct power you have over a person: at some level, you control their access to their current job and influence their ability to get other jobs in the future.

  • Performance evaluation responsibility.

This is bigger than it looks at first glance. No matter what the shape of your current organization is like, you are part of a broader culture where an awful lot of people put an awful lot of their personal self-worth into their ability to do their jobs well. I do think this is starting to shift for the better, but a great many of us are still stuck in it. That means that we managers have a responsibility to be aware of the power dynamic that creates: we have the ability to impact not just their work environment, but what reports think of themselves by virtue of our responsibility to evaluate their work.

  • The ability to decide what other people do (delegation)

Yes, delegation is a pretty limited power. But your ability to assign certain kinds of work to your team members, and to do it in a way that either enables them to feel successful or sets them up to flounder, impacts the quality of their day-to-day work life.

  • Influence over decision-making processes and resourcing

Whether you’re gathering data to show what your team is capable of and where you need more help, advocating for raises, or identifying processes that can be streamlined, you’re exercising power over the way the organization is run.

  • Holding a unique perspective within the organizational system

(Psst… everyone has this, not just managers.) We often forget that the folks above us in the org chart don’t automatically know everything we know and then some. If you have a boss or other authority that you report to, you have information about the way the organization is running that they don’t have… unless you give it to them. You know what challenges your team is up against and if you can share how those things are keeping the organization from meeting its bigger-picture goals, you’ve got a much better chance of solving or simplifying those challenges. (Yes, I’m talking about managing up – check out Lara Hogan’s excellent blog for more on that.)

  • The ability to facilitate career growth

Whether you’re coaching, mentoring, or sponsoring your direct reports, you’re in a position that enables you to facilitate their career growth in and out of your team.

All of these are directly tied to the amount of trust that you’ve built with everyone around you.

I think this is the part that makes people uncomfortable. We often associate the word “power” with brute force, assume that exercising power means pulling rank, making people do things they don’t want to do “or else.” There’s a general undertone that power is unfair. This association means that we feel like exercising power means exploiting the trust that we’ve carefully built with our teams. In reality, our jobs are a constant flow of building and relying on trust with our teams, and we’re doing that within the framework of a power dynamic that can either bolster that trust or diminish it. (There could be an entire blog post on the difference between exploiting trust and relying on it, but for now let’s just acknowledge that there’s an important distinction).

What if you don’t acknowledge your power?

  • Your ability to do your job diminishes: Your team loses faith in your effectiveness, which in turn reduces their ability to be as effective.
  • You miss opportunities for real positive impact at every level that you interact on: chances to advocate for individuals, to enable your team as a whole to work better together, to influence the culture of the organization in ways that align with your values.
  • You avoid necessary difficult conversations because you assume you don’t have what it takes to solve the problem.
  • You lose opportunities for your own growth. If you don’t believe you hold power, you’re less likely to take risks or try new things that can lead to real improvement.
  • You burn out because you don’t feel effective at what you’re doing.
  • Maybe most importantly: Your power manifests in ways you didn’t intend, which can hurt people unnecessarily.

What happens if you do?

  • You start to be able to use it intentionally and with integrity.
  • You become conscious of what actions build your power (hint: they’re mostly the same things that build trust) and what actions rely on the power you’ve built.
  • Your ability to use your power effectively reinforces your team’s trust in you, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • You find the edges of your power, which gives you space to create impactful alliances with others when your power isn’t the right kind for the task at hand. (This is why superheroes come in teams.)
  • You’re better able to create boundaries around what you do and don’t expect of yourself. You can say: here is where my power is, and within that I expect excellence of myself. Here is where my power isn’t, and if I don’t have the kind of impact I want over that area, I can still sleep at night.
  • You’re better able to identify when identity-based power dynamics at play: maybe you’re a white person with authority over BIPOC folks, maybe you’re not disabled but have reports who are, maybe you’re cisgender and have reports who are trans. When you’re cognizant of your power, you can be honest with yourself about when you’re doing right by those communities and when a misuse or neglect of your power is harmful to them.

When we’re managing well, we’re operating more from the trust we’ve built with our team than we are from a sense of authority conferred by our title. To keep managing well, we have to stay cognizant of the fact that that trust is a form of power, and accept both the responsibility and the possibility that comes with that.