Power, presence and perceptions

A bit of pondering on an autumn afternoon off…
As we move up the ladder at work, whether we become lecturers or administrators or managers or other holders of senior positions, we change and grow and our knowledge increases and our experience broadens. Our skills and abilities stretch and our opinions become more robust. Our viewpoints change as we see the bigger picture. Maybe we have to become more focussed on strategy, perhaps appearing less caring about the smaller things – and I’d say that’s natural and is probably the only way those responsible for large organisations can function effectively. We may also dress differently – more formally perhaps – which changes the physical perception of our presence. Power always adds presence (I think because of the obligations that come with it), whether we recognise it or not.

But I’m willing to bet that inside, we feel the same as we always did. I was speaking to an elderly gentleman the other day and asked him if he felt any different having reached his eighty-fifth year. His response confirmed my own experience: he felt exactly the same as he had in his twenties – it was merely that his image reflected in the mirror in a morning was different.

The perceptions bit of this ramble though, is about how others perceive us. When you were promoted to a position of leadership amongst your colleagues, how did your attitude towards them change? And more to the point, how did their attitude to you alter? Like it or not, someone appointed to lead suddenly becomes ‘them’… ‘Management (TM)’. Suddenly we are no longer ‘us’ but have become ‘them’. No doubt you spent some time thinking about how you managed the transition and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Of one thing I’m certain – the effect we, in our new positions, have on those with whom we were once ‘us’ is something we need to consider and take very seriously. We appear different and have a different ‘presence’ whether we know it or not. I’ll give you an illustration…

I don’t think I’m a very formidable person and I certainly didn’t think I was even remotely intimidating until some years ago when I first undertook a 360 degree emotional intelligence survey. One of the respondents gave answers which both shocked and surprised me. Although the responses were anonymous, this person chose to identify himself and I’m profoundly grateful he did, because it made me seriously re-think my behaviour.

Just prior to the survey, I’d asked how he was getting on with a project – which at the time I didn’t know was going rather astray. I had been genuinely interested to know how it was going. He had assumed I was looking to discover the shortcomings he knew about and I didn’t. I had asked if I could help. He had taken that to mean I was going to take it over because he couldn’t manage. I was interested, he was wrong-footed. Basically, I hadn’t noticed he had a problem because I’d been too busy to look. I’d assumed he’d come to me if he was in difficulties, but he’d been afraid to admit there were problems lest he be seen as having shortcomings.

Now in this particular case things turned out all right. The project wasn’t nearly as off track as he thought and I was actually to coach him into unblocking his thinking so as to get it back on track very easily by himself. The really worrying thing was that he had assumed I had changed so much since I became ‘management’ that I wouldn’t act as a non-judgemental sounding board or simply pitch in and help as I always had in the past, but would judge or punish in some way.

He had stopped seeing me and was only seeing my ‘position’, and I was totally unaware of the fact. I was lacking in a very important area of emotional intelligence.

If this post persuades you to do nothing else, please consider how you appear to those who report to you. Do you really know? Is anyone who reports to you struggling, but too afraid to tell you? Do you know how to coach them so that they can quickly find their own solution and not be disempowered by you taking over? And I’m not touting for trade here, but a 360 degree emotional intelligence survey can give you valuable insight into how your colleagues actually perceive you and can save everyone a lot of grief in the long run if you act on the results. Some of the books listed in the Readings page are very good pointers to good coaching practice.

3 thoughts on “Power, presence and perceptions

  1. Very considered blog. Thank you.

    Neuroscience has only recently confirmed that as people climb the ladder they ‘lose’ empathy – as you know the core of emotional intelligence – and known by every US everywhere.

    You were indeed fortunate to have this feedback, but all credit to you that you recognised its worth. A valuable lesson to one and all.

    David Newton-Dines

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