Women are guilty of abusing their power, but not in the way you may think. Rather than throw their weight around, demand compliance or ignore the plight of the less powerful, they do something equally damaging: they minimise their power.
Being promoted into a position of power doesn’t necessarily make us feel powerful. Without an equal measure of internal power, any external markers of power can magnify insecurities and uncertainties, and make us feel like imposters on the brink of exposure. When we do not step confidently and fully into a position of power, we create a disconnect between inside and outside: how powerful we appear to others compared with how powerful we appear to ourselves.
Ways we avoid owning our power
I don’t deserve this.
Others are more skilled; I just got lucky.
I was in the right place at the right time.
We confuse the people we are leading by denying the power inherent in an assigned role. As leaders, others look to us to make decisions, set standards and give feedback. When we don’t act accordingly—because we don’t feel qualified—people don’t know where they stand and can wonder why we’re ‘reluctant to lead’.
- View yourself through the eyes of others, and let their faith in you build your confidence.
- Act as if you deserve to be leading: faking confidence can build confidence.
- Model other leaders who embrace their power, and use it for the good of others.
It was nothing.
We all worked on it together.
Anyone could have done it.
When we are naturally good at something, we tend to underestimate our ability and downplay our strengths: if it’s easy for us, it must be easy for others. Downplaying our efforts, combined with a general reluctance to brag, means we perpetuate the likelihood of being passed over by others who confidently promote their potential and step fully into their power.
- Make a list of skills, attributes and traits of which you can be proud. It’s important to acknowledge these strengths to yourself.
- Practise telling people what you are proud of achieving and why (in a way that doesn’t make you squirm!)
- Practise responding to compliments with a simple ‘thank you’. This forces you to own your power and not deny it.
I’m not sure I’m experienced enough to do this.
Who am I to be leading this team?
When will they realise I’m an imposter?
Without self-belief it is difficult to step into our own power. When we doubt our abilities and the positions we hold, we become hesitant to make use of the opportunities they afford. We don’t go for the big roles or projects, of which we are capable—we play it safe.
Interestingly, self-doubt is associated with great ability: the incompetent are confident and the competent doubt their abilities. So if you doubt yourself, be delighted, it probably means you’re better than you give yourself credit for.
- Rejoice in your doubt, knowing that it’s a sign of your capability.
- Fake it to make it: confidence comes from doing the things at which you’re not confident. To build confidence, you must act with confidence.
- Do more of what scares you most.
Closing the disconnect gap
When we minimise our power, we are in danger of sabotaging our potential. In Developing Direct Reports: Taking the guesswork out of leading leaders, my co-authors and I explore 12 globally recognised leadership derailers. A chronic disconnect between inside and outside power, for women, can appear as one of the following derailers:
- Staller: not moving forward on decisions, focused on perfection not momentum.
- Fence-sitter: trying to accommodate everyone; trying to make the ‘right’ decision.
- Avoider: uncomfortable with conflict.
Our ability to feel empowered is a choice we make, not a position we hold. Being promoted to a position of power doesn’t always equate to real power, nor does a lack of power equate to powerlessness. The choice is always yours.