Humans are often irrational. And why shouldn’t we be? After all, reason is just one of our many cognitive abilities. But sometimes irrationality is troublesome. Consider this foible: what we feel, we tend to think of as real.
For instance, if I was on a subway and the train suddenly lurched, and by accident you stepped on my toe, my first reaction would be “Ouch!” followed quickly by annoyance, or a flash of anger, or possibly even feeling insulted.
These feelings flash by in an instant. And then I have to mentally remind myself that you didn’t mean it. Which is weird, when you think about it. Because it’s pretty obvious you didn’t mean it. But my feelings make the hurting action seem intended—and very real.
This is a microscopic example of one of the most significant issues related to all communication: what we feel about an interaction often rules our responses. There are many ways this manifests, and one way it shows up is in the intent-impact gap: the miscommunication that occurs between what you or someone says and how it is experienced. Now, when it comes to asymmetrical power relations, this gap becomes a chasm. In a role of power, I may intend to say one thing, but the impact on others is something altogether different.
Here’s how it happens. There are at least two different experiences of power at every moment: the power we feel, and the power others see in us. These are often not one in the same.
For instance, you are a leader, and you see yourself as just thinking out loud, but others interpret your musings as a request, or change of direction. Suddenly, resources are deployed in a direction you never intended.
Or, you’re having a bad day. You had a fight with your significant other. And now, in a meeting someone says something critical and before you know it, you’ve snapped at that person, feeling hurt and aggrieved. But—as I’ve written numerous times before—you’re reacting out of a low-rank state, a state of momentary powerlessness that is difficult to resist, even though you hold a great deal of positional power. But do you think others see your low rank in that moment? Chances are, they see you acting aggressively in your high ranking role.
It can also happen the other way round: you see and experience yourself in a position of authority, but others see only your social self: your gender, nationality, race, or age. If you are in a social minority, you may be the victim of stereotype threat, where other’s lowered expectations and judgments impact your effectiveness.
Finally, it could also be that they see, well, a mirage. They just see “a boss,” an image based on their own beliefs and judgments about authority and power. No matter what you do, or don’t do, they just see a nasty previous boss, teacher, or parent. Or, it could also be a positive image—an overly inflated image of what you’re capable of doing.
Whatever form they take, these projections affect you for good and for bad. They can influence how you feel and—in other words, how you use your power.
To be power smart, we need to mind this gap: the gap between the power what we feel and the power others see. How do we do that? Here are some considerations:
Remember that what you feel may not be real. Make it a habit to step outside yourself and look at yourself from the outside in. Especially if someone is aggressive, always entertain the possibility that they might be threatened or intimidated by your higher rank.
Remember that you may not be getting the information and feedback you need because of your rank. It’s your job to make it easy for people to talk to you, to approach you, to give you honest feedback. You have to really make it a habit to solicit input, to thank people for speaking up. Make it safe to give opinions.
Keep in mind what you say can and will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, taken out of context, and interpreted through the magnifying lens of your power. This is unavoidable. You will want to defend yourself and say, “But that’s not what I meant!” But criticizing others for how they interpret your words won’t work. Instead, you have to go to great lengths to communicate, explain, share your thinking, share what goes into your decisions. Communicate much more than you think you need to.
Last, know that you’re a symbol. You will be projected upon. You will be subject to unfair stereotypes about power; or about your gender, your age, your race, and so on. Know that the role, the symbol of leader, will be criticized, and it’s your job not to take the criticism and projections—both good and bad—personally.