What’s Your Power Style?

Bron: Harvard Business ReviewMonday May 9, 2011 

by Maggie Craddock  

Have you ever wondered if a person’s childhood experiences influence the way they operate as a professional later in life? Did that boardroom bully who intimidates others in order to make a point shove people around on the playground as a kid?

Whether you are trying to get ahead at your existing firm or land a job in a new organization, it’s helpful to understand that many of your instincts for giving and taking power stem from ways you were conditioned in the first system you experienced in life — your family system. Through my research for my upcoming book Power Genes, I discovered that the building blocks of anyone’s signature power style are rooted in the ways they have been conditioned to respond emotionally and behaviorally to the first authority figures they encountered in life, namely, their caregivers.

To get a sense of how you may be emotionally conditioned to respond to power in the workplace, reflect for a moment on the predominant way that your caregivers exerted authority in your family system. Did they motivate you by considering your feelings, or did they issue orders they expected to be promptly obeyed? If you were raised by caregivers who asked your opinion when making important family decisions, you probably react positively to colleagues who take the time to connect with you at a human level. This type of reaction indicates that the emotional dimension of your signature power style may be trust-based.

In contrast, people who were raised by caregivers that were either rigidly authoritarian or highly permissive often find that the emotional dimension of their power style can be fear-based. They may react negatively to consensus building on the job and gravitate towards leaders who operate independently and exude an aura of confidence.

But there is another level of your power style the needs exploring. The behavioral dimension of your power style stems from the way you learned to deal with your caregivers as a unit to get what you wanted in childhood. Did a more informal approach win the day, or did you learn to operate more formally with them?

If your childhood experience taught you that you could sometimes get one parent to agree to a request that had been refused by the other, the behavioral dimension of your signature power style may be predominantly informal. People with a strong informal dimension to their power style prefer one-on-one interactions on the job when they are trying to influence others. For example, even when they know they will need to present an idea or proposal to a group, they will tend to run their ideas by key individuals privately before the group meets.

In contrast, clients who report that their caregivers stuck together when disciplining or rewarding them often exhibit a preference for dealing with groups to further a professional agenda later in life. People whose behavioral preferences indicate a formal dimension to their signature power style prefer to orchestrate an open debate around contentious issues with a group than negotiate individual agreements in private.

Comparing the ways my clients learned to adapt to get their needs met in childhood with the challenges, these same clients were facing in their current jobs unearthed some important trends. For example, Jeff, a senior executive in the advertising industry, was about to be passed over for promotion because his tendency to talk over others in meetings made him appear too anxious to lead a creative team. Jeff had worked with presentation coaches, but his urgent need to be heard held sway.

Jeff grew up in the shadow of an older sister who was a champion figure skater. His parents, who loved and supported him, had been so preoccupied with his sister’s athletic career that they had inadvertently left Jeff starved for attention. Jeff longed to capture and hold his parents attention. This longing drove Jeff to created advertising campaigns that successfully grabbed the attention of families around the world. As Jeff began to understand the way that his fear of losing attention as a child was undermining the tone he set internally on the job, he was able to become a more powerful listener and land the promotion he deserved.

The first step in making change is to identify your own power style. You can evaluate your signature power style by examining your dominant emotional triggers and behavioral patterns. Most people find that their signature power style is a blend of at least two of these four core power styles

  • The Pleaser — Due to outside stressors, Pleasers often didn’t get the attention they craved from their caretakers early in life. Pleasers often grow up hungry for validation and are hardwired to take care of others. Pleasers often wield power by attempting to connect with others at a personal level.
  • The Charmer — Charmers were often required to soothe an emotionally needy parent early in life. As a result, they sometimes have little respect for formal authority and may manipulate others in order to get their needs met. The Charmer power style is exemplified by people with an intensity of focus that both intimidates and seduces others into compliance.
  • The Commander — Often, a Commander has grown up in a family system devoted to sports, religion, the military, or any larger system that reinforces discipline and a strict code of conduct. Commanders operate with a results orientation and tend to foster a sense of urgency in others.
  • The Inspirer — The family systems that foster Inspirers often value self-expression over conformity, and the caregivers in such systems are often willing to make personal sacrifices to achieve excellence in areas such as artistic expression or scientific inquiry. Inspirers tend to be innovative thinkers and operate with a consistent commitment to the greater good.

Each style has inherent strengths and challenges, and each presents us with important lessons about power in the workplace. Jeff discovered that his approach to wielding power reflected a blend of the Pleaser and Commander and was able to use that knowledge to adjust his habits and behavior.

As you identify your own power style, it’s important to bear in mind that there are no “good” or “bad” power styles, and remember not to make snap judgments about others or about yourself. Most of us employ more than one power style, and you may even switch styles depending upon the situation. To assist you in better identifying with a specific style, I will be exploring case studies based on each of the four core power styles in future blog posts.

Maggie Craddock is the president and founder of Workplace Relationships.

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