Power In The Workplace: How To Play The Long Game

Dr. Tracy Cocivera, C.Psych.

Tracy Cocivera, Ph.D., C.Psych., is Vice President, National Coaching Practice Lead and Master Coach at Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge.

She thought they were playing checkers; he knew they were playing chess. She was so taken with the small wins, the piling up of red chips, that she lost sight of the board. Tactics vs. strategy. Rookie mistakes. She won’t be asked to play again.

Power is a funny thing, especially when it’s clumsily wielded by an amateur with a whiff of it in their nostrils. You’ve seen it: the flexing of muscle over trivialities, who gets copied on emails and in what order, who is cut out of the flow of information, and who takes cheap shots under the guise of being helpful.

The effective use of power relies on recognizing when to push and when to stand down, knowing the difference between strength and weakness, and being seen as problem-solving and collaborative rather than someone who picks fights.

In my research and consulting work, I have met both kinds of executives: those who successfully wield their power and those who don’t. The successful ones are comfortable sharing power because they know their reputation protects it, so they don’t have to show it off.

Exercising power in the workplace is even more delicate in that the relationships are symbiotic and long-term. Short-term gains at someone else’s expense will eventually erode those relationships, and someone will lose. Oddly enough, the losers are usually the ones who have been winning, but winning by playing crudely: looking for chances to take a cheap shot, always needing to be right and having the last word.

Ultimately, the exercise of power relies on relationships, because most goals are interdependent, and you simply need others to help get things done. Given the complexity of today’s workplace, work is almost never an independent venture, so the mastery of power and influence is how goals are pursued and accomplished.

When we see dismally executed power and influence in person, it’s troubling, but more often than not, we see it committed to writing in the form of emails and texts — the ones that are typed in a flurry and sent without a second thought and might as well say “so there” at the end. In my years of coaching and consulting, I’ve been stunned by the things people are prepared to put into writing, and email makes it so easy to mess up and hard to clean up.

If you want to play chess with the adults, rather than checkers with the kids, it will help to be clear on several facts:

  • Power and influence are relationship-dependent.
  • Savvy influencers focus on the long term and big picture.
  • You must know the short- and long-term benefits and costs of wielding your power and influence.
  • Be sure to know how your power compares to your colleagues’ and where your power comes from.
  • Be strategic in what communication you put in writing and what conversations are better face to face.

This article is published in Forbes Magazine.