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Smashing the glass ceiling: identified power use should be a key part of female development in organisations large and small

Are killer heels really your most powerful ally or should you be looking at your inner strengths to succeed in the workplace?

When we say power in a workplace environment or a leadership context – we don't just mean power dressing or putting on a pair of heels. Far from it. As a women, I know it is important to present the right image in the workplace, but from experience, I also know that to succeed, the most valuable power has to come from within.

Often the word ‘power’ receives a mixed reception, and actually, can sometimes be viewed with negative connotations. Too many people have worked for leaders who have misused their power, so you can see why.

Working with female managers across the UK, Europe and Asia, I am often told of specific accounts of how others, often men, have abused their power, position and status. These memories leave many female leaders viewing power as too much like game playing or corporate manipulation, with many of then not seeing it as a valuable asset for their development.

So, whether consciously or not, women tend to relinquish their power. Often this is with good intentions e.g. out of a desire to please, be helpful, or do a good job. In some instances they may believe that they are actually using their often credited ‘relationship skills’ or ‘emotional intelligence’ when in fact this reliance on these characteristics might have the opposite effect.

For the past ten years, I have been working with women in businesses across the globe, and have noted some of the ways in which they give their power away on a daily basis:

• Personal PR:

Do you often sell yourself short? Do you put yourself forward for a promotion, when you know you deserve it? Recent research from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) reported that 20% of men would apply for a role, despite only partially meeting the job description, whereas only 14% of women would.

• Confidence:

Do you regularly ask for permission? Do you often say, “I’m sorry...” or “Could I just say...”.

• Playing mother:

Do you find yourself adopting a maternal role? Are you often found doing the menial jobs – including: clearing away, providing teas and coffees?

• Being afraid of being wrong:

For example: “What do you think to the news today?” Woman replies: “What news?” rather than assuming a news item and responding appropriately (whether or not it is the right news item).

• Strategic Approach:

Women tend to believe more readily than men that they will be noticed and promoted on the basis of their ‘merit’ and ‘hard work’. Often women are so busy doing and that they sometimes lose their focus on their career strategy and sadly, their efforts go unnoticed.

• Career Progression:

Research from Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) amongst senior leaders, found that half of the women surveyed, experienced feelings of self-doubt about their performance and career.

Clearly, power squandering can come in many forms, and can be demonstrated by men too. Individually, these missed opportunities could be excused as someone being too busy, polite or humble, but escalated across a week, month, year or entire career, you can see the cumulative impact this has on a personal brand, reputation and chance of progression.

So, understanding how, when and why we give away power is a key part of the battle, but so is identifying the breadth of power bases that we have at our disposal.

Back in the 1950s, two psychologists? Raven and French conducted a number of power investigations, and highlighted five key power bases. Over the past 10 years, more research has revealed somewhere between 15 – 20 different power bases. For Capp, from our experience of developing senior women internationally, there are seven top power bases that women are the most keen to use and develop:

1. Expert Power: Possession of expert knowledge or insight, especially when this knowledge is regarded as critical to the organisation.

2. Sponsorship Power: Access to powerful others who support and sponsor one’s objectives, lending reflected power to them in doing so.

3. Network Power: Emanates from a person’s connections and so the perception of what they can achieve through their network.

4. Favour Power: Quid pro quo exchange relationships, based on ‘I do something for you, you do something for me’.

5. Information Power: Access to information that is needed by others, whether organisationally (e.g., strategy) or socially (e.g., gossip).

6. Democratic Power: Power gained through giving more control to others, who in turn support the person who helped them become influential.

7. Charisma Power: Personal power of charm, persuasion, attractiveness and influence, that all combine to help us get things done.

The good news for emerging female leaders is that developing power bases can set them apart from their male colleagues. Recent research by the Centre for Gender in Organisations (CGO), revealed that once women worked on developing their power bases, not only were they comfortable with using power bases they liked, but they could achieve great things when they used it.

Identified power use should be a key part of female development in organisations large and small. In my experience, female leaders are most effective when they align specific power bases to issues, problems or situations which they want to influence and succeed in. So, a few words of advice, invest time in developing your inner power bases and walk taller and more confident than you ever will in any heels.

Nicky Garcea, consulting director of global organisational psychology firm, Capp