As the workforce gets more diverse, and as awareness of workplace problems such as harassment, discrimination, and exclusion expands, compliance training has exploded. Workforce magazine quotes an employment lawyer turned HR consultant who says she has witnessed a threefold increase in requests for sexual harassment trainings since early 2017.

…All of which is good news, no doubt. But does it stick? Does compliance training really change behavior?

More importantly, does it change culture?

Compliance is vital. If you were an employer, you would be happy to know your employees were compliant with the law. You’d sleep better at night not having to worry about a potential lawsuit or complaint. But are you content with compliant employees?

Just like a restaurant that wants to be known for exceptional food and not just a kitchen that doesn’t violate health codes, workplaces should be known for more than having compliant employees. A workplace should want to boast that its culture is a healthy and positive one.

Compliance stops bad behavior from happening, but commitment creates that healthy and positive culture. In an ideal world, compliance is the byproduct of a healthy workplace culture.

What Does Commitment Look Like?

Commitment means that people don’t just espouse positive values but live them. A culture that is committed to positive values is one in which…

  • People treat each other with respect, compassion, and understanding. They freely contribute their ideas because relationships are respectful and open. Bullying, rudeness, and incivility are not tolerated.
  • Communication is open and honest. People share ideas, resources, and information. Gossip is kept at a minimum, because people know how to have direct and constructive conversations.
  • People are regularly acknowledged, rewarded, and appreciated for their work. Work feels meaningful and creative.
  • People are seen and valued for their wholeness. Employers understand that people have lives outside of work: they have bodies, families, and interests that need time and focus, and that workplace policies need to be flexible and fair to accommodate these other commitments.


Let’s Talk About Power

So, what does it take to go from mere compliance to commitment to a positive culture?

Let’s take a step back and consider the behaviors employees complain about most—those that require compliance training: harassment, bullying, discrimination, preferentialism, and toxic behaviors such as gossip, rudeness, and cliquishness. What do they have in common? These are all symptoms of power used poorly.

Granted, we don’t immediately see them as power problems, because we tend to think of power only in hierarchical relationships. But power problems occur across organizations, in every relationship. What happens when we don’t recognize these behaviors as misuse of power? We are left to seek out separate—and costly—training and compliance solutions:

  • Equity and inclusiveness training for ending discrimination, increasing diversity, and making the workplace more welcoming to all kinds of people
  • Unconscious bias for making people aware of their unconscious preferences, behaviors, and assumptions
  • Conflict and communication training for managing conflict productively and improving our capacity to hold difficult conversations
  • Anti-bullying training for creating safe and respectful workplaces
  • Compliance training for curtailing discrimination, harassment, and other illegal or fraudulent behavior and activities

Additionally, there’s training for improving relationships, communication, and self-regulation, such as…

  • Emotional intelligence for creating better interpersonal relationships
  • Teamwork and collaboration skills for helping people work together more effectively
  • Mindfulness for reducing stress, promoting resilience, and increasing empathy

These piecemeal solutions are overly complex, incoherent, and expensive. What’s more, they are disconnected to the overall organizational and talent development strategy. Worst of all, when training is experienced as corrective, it is generally met with disdain and resistance from employees—both the rank-and-file and senior leadership.

Considering these behaviors as problems of power use offers a more coherent framework—one that is directly connected to leadership. Leaders at all levels of the organization need training in how to use their power and authority in positive and effective ways. Surprisingly, however, most leadership development training leaves out the topic of using power well. Why?


Power Is Taboo

The word “power” is unnerving. It carries with it such a negative connotation that it has come to be synonymous with “misuse of power,” with self-serving and abusive forms of power. Looking at the headlines about power misuse, it’s easy to see why. But the truth is that most misuse of power is unintended. What plagues workplaces are the little infractions, micro-aggressions, unconscious comments, and nonverbal communications that send powerful messages. And most of the time, people don’t see how they are misusing their power.

Research does show power to be corrupting, but it’s not inevitably so. It is possible to learn how to exert power—positional, personal, and informal—in positive and healthy ways, and in the service of the organization to achieve intended results.

My own research shows that there are “power competencies,” behaviors that one can learn and develop. I call these competencies Power Intelligence®. Like Emotional Intelligence—the ability to understand and manage one’s own and other’s emotions—Power Intelligence® is the ability to use positional and personal effectively, in the service of one’s role—be it a formal, organizational role, or an informal role such as parent, friend, or mentor. In both cases, being “power intelligent” means using power in the service of a greater good.


Here are the five essential Power Intelligence® competencies:


1. Take Your Pulse of Power

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. –Alice Walker 

We live our lives in a hierarchy; to use a cliché, climbing a ladder of power. With that image of a ladder in mind, our gaze is always upward. Thus, we are experts on power—on the power of those people above us.  We know everything about the person above us because that’s what we see most: their feet at our eye level. But we forget that someone else is gazing upwards at us! We forget that someone else is an expert about us, because our gaze is turned ever upward. It is therefore easy (and potentially lethal) to forget that we have power, too—even if just a tiny amount of power.

When we forget or underestimate our power, we become unaware of how we use it and of its impact on others. We tend to think of ourselves as having little power, compared to the ones above us. And when we don’t feel powerful, we tend to use more power to compensate for our sense of powerlessness. And then what happens is we inadvertently use more power and authority that the situation calls for.

Moreover, living in a hierarchy leads us to overestimate positional power and social status, the visible dimensions of power, and underestimate other kinds of power which can be just as impactful: emotional threats, gossip, yelling, withholding information, criticizing and shaming in public.

Know all your powers, the invisible as well as the visible ones. Know how to use them, as well as when they are important, and the impact they have on others. Always remind yourself to look down. Remember: you have power over others. It’s easy to forget, but your every action has an impact on others. 


2. Recognize that You Are “on Stage”

All leaders lead by example… whether they intend to or not. –Unknown

An executive told me recently that the best advice she ever received was to remember that from the minute she stepped out of her car in the morning until the minute she left the office, she should think of herself as being on stage.

That might sound extreme, but it’s true: when you step into a role of power, you cease being anonymous; you become the role. Your actions set the tone for how people treat each other. You need to be ever-mindful that you are a role model for others, and that your behavior reflects positively—or negatively—upon the organization you serve.

Power is also a symbol. That means people will treat you as a symbol, and stop seeing you as a person. They see power, and relate to you with the assumptions, expectations, and projections they carry about the symbol of power.

Remember: no matter how approachable or easy going you are, your power is intimidating. People will hesitate to speak, to share information, and to deliver difficult news. They want to please and impress you, and will therefore put on an act. On top of that, your power is a commodity—something people want, need, and covet. They want to be close to you, to gain your approval to advance their careers, agendas, or projects. This is scary: How do you know you are getting the information you need? How do you know things might be going wrong if people are afraid to tell you?

In a position of power, it’s up to you to make it easy for people to speak up, talk, disagree, and give feedback. Your power turns you into a program for others to follow, so make sure you express interest in difference, seek out, appreciate. Above all, explicitly state your need to hear diverse points of view. 


3. Step Up to Conflict  

Remember that what gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen. And that we succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” Susan Scott, CEO, Fierce, Inc.

Although most of us consider misuse of power to be synonymous with overuse of power, underusing power is just as big a problem as overuse—if not an even greater problem.

Some people try to minimize their power footprint, because they don’t like hierarchy, confrontation, or conflict. But underuse of power wreaks havoc, too. Team leaders who won’t make decisions allow projects to degenerate into frustrating and pointless endeavors. A boss who refuses to deal with the conflict on her team, hoping it will “just work itself out,” is at risk of losing valuable team members. Colleagues who don’t work out their conflicts directly turn to gossip instead, poisoning the atmosphere.  Teamwork becomes impossible when people can’t debate ideas and say what they honestly think. If decisions are made without a full discussion, people aren’t really committed to them because they didn’t participate.

Using power well means being able to step up and raise difficult topics, hold challenging conversations, give constructive feedback, and deal with conflict productively. Avoiding power and authority out of fear of misusing it, or out of a belief that power is negative doesn’t mean you’re using your power well. It probably means you’re using it poorly. Remember: using your power is part of your job.


4. Understand the Magnifying Lens of Power

Assume you now have a megaphone strapped to you 24/7. Everything you say and do is amplified and open to interpretations far from your intentions. –Ron Carucci and Eric Hansen, authors of Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Leaders

In a position of power, everything you say and do is filtered through a “lens of power,” a magnifying glass that adds meaning and intent to your every action or non-action. The message you intend to send may be dramatically at odds with the one that others receive.

What you say lands with more impact. You may think you are offering a good idea but others hear a definitive direction. Your off-the-cuff comment becomes a command. Your light-hearted humor is seen as insensitive and callous. And not doing speaks just as loudly as doing. If you fail to communicate or intervene you’re seen to be aloof, disinterested, or condoning the behavior.

The lens of power turns the “intent–impact gap” into a chasm. What you intend to say and how it is perceived are often miles apart. So, size up situations before acting, and think twice before voicing a thought or feeling, knowing that what you say and how it will be received are not one and the same.


5. Connect Your Power to Its Purpose

The cost of leadership is self-interest. –Simon Sinek 

Connect your power to its purpose. Never stray from the underlying purpose and mission of your authority, regardless of your position in the organization. Power used well is power used for a greater good. It means understanding the difference between self-interest and others’ interests; between your needs and the needs of your team; between the needs of your team and the needs of the whole organization.

Even if you are not among the top leaders in an organization it’s still easy to let self-interest run amok. I see this frequently on leadership teams where each person advocates strongly for their team, their project, or their budget. Whenever you use power—be it your authority or your loud voice—to promote your own needs at the expense of the greater good, you misuse power.

Consider this, as well: even your fear or self-doubt is self-interest. If you hold back your opinion because you are afraid of being wrong, afraid of being criticized, or just don’t trust yourself, you prioritize your fears over the interests of the whole.

Therefore, strive to always keep the big picture in mind. Serve the interests of the whole. When in doubt, do what your job requires.


Power: Bridging Compliance and Commitment


Culture is set not just by what people say, but what people do, especially leaders. To make the transition from a compliant culture to a healthy and positive one, we need to include a focus on power. Power Intelligence® training takes us beyond a defensive focus on not getting it wrong, to a proactive, generative focus on building leadership and culture.

We need to embrace power as neither good nor bad, but as vital energy—the capacity to shape the world, influence others, and make an impact. Power may be difficult to master, but it’s vital to have. It’s generative and creative, and when people use their power well, our groups, organizations, and workplaces become more inspired, engaging, and productive.