For many people, one of the most difficult (and unnerving) parts of day-to-day work life is speaking to authority.
I jokingly refer to this as a feudal hangover—the knee jerk reaction we have, to rank (see for example Monty Python’s Class System sketch from 1966).
Whether we’re speaking to teachers, bosses, or even parents, being able to speak with confidence and clarity to someone in power can be intimidating. Yet, being able to speak to whom you report with confidence and without hesitation or fear of reprisal is critical to your career.
The key to speaking to authority well is remembering your personal power.
Personal power is your innate set of acquired tools, skills, attitudes, and characteristics you have in your knapsack.
The best thing about personal power is this: it is inalienable. It can’t be taken from you. And that makes your personal power more, well, powerful than your boss’s positional power. Her power is based on her role, but yours is based on you.
Personal power gives you an inner sense of stability, self-regulation, and self-confidence that allows you to respond to the moment with your best thinking.
Personal power is what you turn to when you need to speak to authority, deliver difficult feedback, face a skeptical audience, challenge the status quo, or be challenged by others.
When speaking to your boss, you need the poise, self-confidence, calm, and composure that comes from being connected to your personal power.
The other great thing about personal power is this: it’s unique. Your way of being personally powerful is just that: your way.
You don’t have to feign confidence, put on an act of boldness, or try to sound like your co-worker. Being connected to your personal power means that you approach your boss your way, in your own style, feeling grounded and centered in yourself—without trying to embody personality traits or characteristics that a book or blog post says makes you powerful.
Here are the steps to using your personal power:
#1: Take inventory of your personal powers: what you bring to the table.
This quote by Maya Angelou says it all:
Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.
Before you have to speak to anyone in power or do anything you might find intimidating … take a moment and remember your power. Take an inventory of everything you bring to the table.
Because your greatest sense of power comes from knowing—and liking—yourself. There are millions of books and blogs out there that will tell you the traits, habits, and skills you need to be successful and to be powerful.
You can learn new behaviors, develop skills, and tame those aspects of your personality that derail you, but you cannot develop a personality you don’t already have. You’re pretty much stuck with yourself.
And, trying to be someone else, trying to approximate the walk, talk, or personality traits that experts say make you powerful? That’s only going to make you feel even more uncertain, less stable, and less grounded in your authentic nature.
Personal power is personal!
So, take an inventory of what’s personally you: what are your personality traits, and how do they serve you?
Extroverted? Great! Introverted? That’s great too!
Ask yourself what special insights and abilities your personality gives you. What skills do you have? What is your unique perspective? What traits and characteristics have served you—and how do they help others.
Those are your personal powers. And they are uniquely you!
Take an inventory of your powers so you know what you have to offer. Feeling connected to your rich and powerful toolkit itself will make you feel capable and confident.
And this is also the antidote to the problem of tip #2 …
#2. Don’t be dazzled by their rank.
For God’s sake, take your eyes off the other person’s rank, and focus on yours!
Don’t be dazzled by authority. The corner office, the big desk, the busy calendar, the gate-keeping admin person—these are the trappings of power meant to intimidate.
But like the Great and Powerful Oz, at the end of the day, the man or woman behind the curtain is just that—a human.
And remember the value you bring … you were hired because of your qualifications, experience, and personality, so don’t be afraid of adding value to the organization.
As I’ve written before, while conventional wisdom dictates you should never underestimate your opponent, your real enemy is when you put yourself in a one-down position.
Whenever we overestimate the other person’s power, we trigger a stress response: we’re putting ourselves in a one-down position relative to them.
How smart do you feel when you feel less than the other person? Not very.
That’s why it’s crucial to keep your eyes on your personal power—your thoughts, your perspective, your ideas—and avoid getting overly dazzled by someone else.
What’s more, when we focus too much on another person’s high rank, it distorts our perception. We see through the lens of that low rank experience, which isn’t always accurate.
A client of mine once had a conflict with her boss. She complained that her boss was overly critical of her. But when she explained the situation to me, I saw it completely differently.
Her low rank perception overlooked the fact that she was excellent in her role; so good, in fact, that she outshone her boss. Her boss’s boss frequently commended her and gave her side projects. Her boss wasn’t critical—he was jealous and threatened.
But dazzled by his high rank, and convinced of her low-rank, she could only see his behavior in one way: that she wasn’t good enough.
And if you continue to be dazzled by your boss’s rank, you’re going to miss the fact that …
#3. People in power are dependent on others for work getting done.
One of the greatest paradoxes of power is this: the higher up you go, the more dependent you are. Why? Because a hierarchical system is an interdependent one. The boss depends on others for their expertise, for information, and for getting things done.
This means that even if your boss knows more than you, has more experience, expertise, and skill, she still needs to hear from you! You have access to information that she doesn’t have. You have insight into what’s happening downstream that she might not see.
If you just assume that your boss always knows best, you’re going to hold back. But this puts decision making at great risk because you just might have some crucial information necessary to make the best, most informed decision.
One of the biggest mistakes we make when talking to our boss (or anyone in power) is failing to remember this dependency, and assuming the boss has all the answers. They might. But just imagine that they have 95% of the answers, and your crucial 5% is the difference between a good decision and a great one, or even worse, between a wrong decision and a right one.
Remember to always ask yourself: What do I have to offer? What can I offer the situation?
When you remember that your boss is also dependent on you, this raises your sense of power, and helps you see yourself as critical to a successful outcome.
You may not always know what to do, but simply putting yourself in that frame of mind makes you smarter, think more clearly, and above all, dip into that knapsack of personal powers to add value.
Julie Diamond, Ph.D is the CEO and founder of Diamond Leadership, an international consulting firm that provides leadership and talent development services, including coaching, assessment, and training. Julie is the author of Power: A User’s Guide, and co-founder of the Power2 Leaderlab, an executive coaching program for women leaders which currently runs a program for senior women leaders at Intel Corporation. Diamond Leadership is the publisher of the Diamond Power Index®, 360-degree leadership assessment, distributed in India by Anahat Organisation Development Consultancy Pvt Ltd.