Playing with Power in the World of Not-for-Profits

Power.  A loaded word if you’re working for a fairer or greener world. Often seen as synonymous with repression, greed, exploitation – something to be worried about or fought against.

Do you crave power? Do you respect those who exert power? Do you feel comfortable when you have power over someone? Do you have days where you feel powerless?

For many of us who work in social change movements, the idea of power can make us feel uneasy.  Uneasy, because if we’re honest, most of us enjoy feeling powerful and many of us have been taught that’s wrong.  We’ve all experienced the abuse of power at some point in our lives – whether it’s been through a bad boss or teacher, a racially profiling police officer, or even just an older sibling trying to get their way.

Generally speaking, those who work in social change movements come to this important work because we’ve experienced or seen unfair abuses of power at a level that compels us to action. Because of this we tend to have a heightened awareness of the dangers that come with power.  For many, this holds us back from stepping into our own full strength.

I’d like you to consider the notion that our discomfort with embracing power is actually undermining our potential to truly do our best work, and that it undermines our ability to really succeed in making the changes we want to see in the world.

Power doesn’t have to be authoritarian, though at a certain point when a decision has to be made this type of power can be critical.  Power doesn’t just come in the form of hierarchy.

Real power comes from knowing what you want to accomplish and learning to clearly articulate and excite people about your vision.  Real power makes space for others to participate in championing your vision and encourages them to bring their own strengths to helping fulfill your shared goals.

You don’t have to be in a position of authority to exert power.  Sometimes one of the most powerful people in an organization is the secretary.  They’re often the person who knows everyone, knows how things work and who to go to when you want something done right.  They have the trust and the ear of the boss and can be your greatest ally when you need something approved fast.

Most of us exert different types of power all the time, often without even noticing.  When you get together with a stakeholder for a cup of coffee you are exercising power – building relationships is the most critical piece of any successful endeavor.  When you take time to help a colleague get their presentation just right, you are being powerful.  When you tell someone you are impressed with their work – that’s power. When take time to truly listen to someone’s point of view – power.

Through the simple act of recognizing and owning your own power, you immediately become more effective in what you do. You become more reflective on how you’re using your power and in doing so become more deliberate in how you apply your strength.  The more you hone your awareness the more effective you become in your use.

On the flipside: Have you ever worked in an organization where a co-worker isn’t really doing their job, but the boss doesn’t seem to do anything about it?

Inaction is just as much a misuse of power as forcing someone to bend to your will.  Fearing or denying your power is damaging – to yourself and those around you. In the case of a boss who doesn’t want to play the heavy, they end up with resentful staff who are forced to carry a heavier workload.  The staff, in turn lose their respect for the leadership, undermining the strength and effectiveness of the team – good staff inevitably burnout or move on.

There is a big difference between using your power and abusing your power.  And I would suggest you have no business taking on a position of authority if you are afraid to exert your power.

Part of owning our power is having to take on difficult conversations.  The difference between use and abuse is in your approach:

  • Deal with difficulties before they get to big.
  • Be respectful.
  • Be clear about the problem and don’t make things personal.
  • Offer suggestions on how things can be improved and ask if they have other ideas.
  • Agree on a plan and a timeline – then follow up.

Like with all types of power, owning it, reflecting on it and practicing how you use it are the three keys to becoming truly effective.

As you go through the rest of your day, step back a little and notice all the moments that come up for you to exercise power. Ask yourself: How would I normally respond? Is there a more effective way to use my power? Then act.  Assess the outcome and repeat. This conscious reflection will just take a second, but I promise you, if you do this you will start to see a world of possibilities open to you.

Embrace your power.  Use your power.  Just don’t abuse your power.


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