How to negotiate a power struggle at work


Sara Kalick, head of LeadfullyPower struggles personify the worst kind of office politics. They sap energy. Distract from purpose. And hold the potential to derail success and happiness.

It’s the rare individual who actually enjoys a power struggle. Most of us want to do what we’re paid for, joke around with our colleagues, and feel like we’ve contributed.

That’s not so easy when emotions are running high. Empathy is replaced with an “us or them” mentality that can quickly escalate. Then we’re stuck either dodging bullets or picking sides. What other choice do we have?

The heart of the struggle

Power often evokes the image of a corner office where people in expensive suits lay down the law for the rest of us. But the reality is, power — and the fight for it — can come from anywhere.

To help us understand workplace struggles, and how to respond to them, we asked our colleague Sara Kalick for her insight. Sara runs our sister brand, Leadfully, which offers guidance to managers on how to lead in the 21st century.

Power, she says, comes down to influence. “It’s the ability to shape belief, build coalition, and rally people to go on a journey. It doesn’t have to be from the top down.” In other words, anyone in the organization with a competing view of how things should work can build a following and spark a struggle.

That’s not to say differing opinions are bad. Often, they are the basis of innovation. Except…

“When it’s personal, and you ascribe feelings to a person rather than an idea, it can be destructive. Fundamentally, you can’t like each other, and then you get stuck,” Sara says.

Another way competing beliefs become destructive is in an unbalanced situation. “When it’s my way or the highway, one party has to succumb and is left with no voice,” explains Sara. “They lose the ability to show up at their best, and no one wins.”

The good news is, there can be constructive resolution, even when we’re thigh-high in discord and angst. The approach is both simple and hard: Step back to clear your head and honestly look at the situation from the other perspective.

When you’re on the offensive

Let’s say you’re angling for more control or say-so. Rather than aggressively lunge for it, Sara advises we align our ambition with those we disagree with. As counterintuitive as that sounds, you’ll actually gain more power in the long run by building trust.

“Aligning isn’t always about agreeing, but being able to go along with and not disrupt,” Sara says. “Ask questions to gain understanding about what the other party is trying to achieve and how you can help deliver on that. Don’t wait to be told. Instead, go the extra mile to have shared assumptions and a shared language.”

The trust you build by joining instead of fighting gives you a voice that will be listened to. Essentially (and eventually), you win the battle without engaging in a struggle.

If that’s simply not possible for you, Sara suggests you “get yourself out of the way. Better to do that for yourself than let someone make the choice for you.”

When you’re on the defensive

If coworkers are trying to usurp your position, assume their intent is positive and ask yourself if they should have more control. In what ways could their opinions and participation help? And while you’re at it, consider how you’re responding to the situation and if there might be a different course of action. “By approaching a struggle head on, you’re coming from a place of control as opposed to letting things happen to you or becoming defensive,” Sara says.

Once you have a more objective understanding of the situation, you can better decide whether to open the door to your coworkers’ ideas. The upside of involving other people is that it brings new possibilities for everyone (including you). It’s also an act of generosity that your coworkers will appreciate and respect — paving the way to better work relations.

Should you decide to reject their idea, “help them see why their role is valuable as is and why it doesn’t make sense to go further than that,” Sara advises. “You need to understand where the other person is coming from and what they need and why. And be honest about what you’re willing to do about it.”

When things get ugly

Power struggles can bring out bad behavior, even in the gentlest of souls. Here are some ground rules to keep yourself on the up and up.

  • Never fight in front of other people. If conversation starts to get heated in a public space, catch yourself before you overreact and give yourself permission to walk away. Otherwise, you’ll end up embarrassed by your actions. “And now,” Sara points out, “it’s about your behavior as opposed to what’s happening.”
  • Engage an impartial person to mediate. Ask them to dissect both stories to find the gaps and differences and break down assumptions. That will lead to more fruitful conversation.

At the end of the work day, “all you can control is yourself,” Sara says. For self-guidance in the midst of a power struggle, she suggests we ask ourselves:

  • What do you value?
  • What do you believe in?
  • Is this the right thing to be fighting for?

Because, whoever is asking the questions is the one who is leading.

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