Building Your Referent Power

There are many ways that a business leader can gain and exercise power. Some of these are heavy-handed, such as positional power (I am the boss and you have to do what I say) or punishment power (If you don’t do what I say, I’ll fire you). While these kinds of power are effective in very specific circumstances, they don’t work well as long-term business leadership strategies.

They especially don’t work well for women. Most people react swiftly to a domineering woman with strong dislike and anger. We expect women in authority to be smart and forceful but also kind and empathic.

One kind of power that often works well for women leaders has been labeled referent power. Referent power is about gaining others’ followership because they respect you, they want your approval, and they want to be like you. Think about the leaders you have worked with who inspired your loyalty and spurred you to do your best. Were you afraid of them? Probably not. Did you admire them and want to please them? You bet.

How can a woman leader build her referent power? Here are four key suggestions:

  • Practice what you preach. Don’t expect others to do what you won’t do. Live the values you expect from your team. Treat everyone with respect and courtesy, all the time, no matter what.
  • Be honest. Keep your team informed. Be frank about what you don’t know. If you make a mistake, admit it and correct it. Never lie.
  • Earn trust. Do what you say you will do. Defend your team members, and make sure they know when you are sticking up for them. Share credit for wins and take accountability for failures.
  • Celebrate wins. Give praise and rewards lavishly for a job well done. Praise people publicly (if they like it). Bring fun and celebration into the workplace.

Under the pressure of driving performance in challenging and competitive business environments, many business leaders ignore these behaviors. They place unreasonable expectations on their team members, they are deceptive or unreliable, and they focus more on problems and failures than on successes and wins. These behaviors sometimes gratify a business leader’s own needs to feel powerful in the moment, but they do not build real and lasting power.

Business leaders do not have to be bullies or egomaniacs to get the job done. True leaders influence their people by deploying a range of powerful tactics – and using their referent power is one of the best tools in their toolboxes.

Developing a Powerful Voice

Part of the definition of power is that when you speak, people listen. Some years ago, the financial advising firm E.F. Hutton made this their advertising slogan – “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” One of the challenges for women leaders is that our voices often do not command attention. In my experience there are two main reasons women have difficulty making our voices heard. The first reason is behavioral. Many women have vocal qualities and speaking styles which undermine their authority and impact. Voices that are quiet, high-pitched, or breathy are more difficult to hear and do not ring with authority. Many women have a speaking style which turns statements into questions, either through their words, “Our business did very well last quarter, don’t you think?,” or through their intonation, by raising the pitch of their voices at the ends of their sentences. The solution to this is for women to listen to tapes of their speaking styles and work to correct any habits that undermine their authority, using a voice coach if necessary. The second reason women have difficulty making our voices heard is psychological. As the mother of three sons, I have learned that, at least in American society, for a boy to become a man requires that he emotionally breaks away from his mother. This process is often quite painful for both the boy and the mother, but it is a necessary step in male development. Breaking away from Mom often involves the young man tuning out his mother’s voice. The problem is that many men generalize this tuning out to other women’s voices. As a result, many women in business settings find it difficult to get their male colleagues’ attention and alignment. What woman hasn’t had the experience of putting forward an idea, being ignored, and then hearing her idea put forward a few minutes later by a male colleague, to enthusiastic response? The solution to this challenge is more difficult. It requires women to think about how we can avoid broadcasting on the “Mommy channel.” This may mean kidding around as if you’re one of the boys. It may mean being unexpected and unpredictable, not stereotyped, in your interests and opinions. It may mean not falling into the role of being the nurturing “Office Mom,” which is typically not a powerful role. In spite of these barriers, many women leaders do indeed speak with a voice of authority and impact. One of the best tips for women is to watch and listen to those leaders, analyze what they are doing, and copy those aspects of their style which are authentic and genuine for you.  

The Strategic and Effective Use of Power

I go to a lot of women’s networking events, and I have to admit I have become a little burned out. So many of them fall into one of two buckets. The theme is either “Why won’t the boys let us into their tree house?” or “How can women leaders live meaningful lives?” I don’t think we need to be talking about either one of those topics. Complaining about the boys isn’t going to change anything. And most women are already good at leading meaningful lives. What we need to be talking about is power – how to get it, how to wield it, and how to manage the complexities of female power. So I am delighted that the Executives’ Club of Chicago has invited me to moderate a panel on “The Strategic and Effective Use of Power” at their Women’s Leadership Breakfast on February 23. The panelists are extraordinary senior women leaders who have up-close and personal relationships with power. I am eager to learn from them, and I’m looking forward to passing on their wisdom and experience to you. Registration is open to both members and non-members. If you are interested in attending you may register for the event by visiting their site here.

Revamping the Annual Review

In this issue we consider how some firms are tweaking their employee review process, as discussed by Rachel Emma Silverman in her September 6, 2011, Wall Street Journal article, “Yearly Reviews? Try Weekly.” A recent survey of 500 firms found that most – 51% – conduct formal, comprehensive performance reviews annually, while an additional 41% conduct them semi-annually. However, a new trend is developing. A number of firms are finding it more useful to de-emphasize the major annual review, augmenting or even supplanting it with far more frequent mini-reviews. Many business leaders now perceive distinct drawbacks to the large-scale performance review: • They are very time-consuming. Managers and workers must schedule large blocks of face-to-face time to conduct these reviews, and both participants generally devote even more time to completing related paperwork. • They can be intimidating. Infrequent comprehensive reviews become a “scary,” high-stakes, high-pressure rite of passage for workers. • Perhaps most importantly, traditional reviews are by their nature overly ambitious. They are so flooded with information – appraising past performance, setting future goals, addressing compensation – that workers don’t absorb it all. Instead, they dwell on criticisms and tune out constructive suggestions for improvement. Both small and large companies are experimenting with more frequent reviews. Grasshopper LLC, a 50-person provider of virtual phone systems, has turned away from large-scale reviews. The firm tried quarterly reviews, but saw productivity diminish and apprehensiveness rise as workers spent 4-8 hours each quarter writing their self-assessments. Instead, managers and employees now meet biweekly one-on-one for 30-40 minutes to discuss performance during the prior two weeks and set goals for the current period. Issues both large (“I want new job responsibilities”) and small (“Can I move my desk?”) are also addressed. Grasshopper’s leadership is pleased with the impact of these mini-reviews. The more frequent meetings create less pressure, and tensions have decreased between employees and managers. While biweekly meetings are time-intensive for managers, the new approach emphasizes that regular communication with workers is the core of a manager’s job. Another advantage of the frequent mini-reviews is that they have a more real-time feel. There are fewer surprises, which makes them much less intimidating. Facebook, Inc., the 2,000 employee social network firm, retains semi-annual formal reviews, but encourages all staff to solicit and provide near-constant feedback after meetings, presentations and projects. Facebook’s current approach expands the vertical manager/worker feedback channel to foster prompt and brief exchanges among all co-workers. It is no big surprise that Facebook is using technology to facilitate its feedback process. Through the team-network software Rypple, similar to Facebook’s own product, each of Facebook’s staff can approve or disapprove of any colleague’s efforts (“stop interrupting customers” or “great presentation at the last meeting”). The software permits Facebook’s managers to pull summaries of this feedback when considering performance, pay and promotions. The trend toward more frequent performance reviews is by no means universal. But forward-thinking companies are finding that frequent feedback opportunities between managers and staff can ensure their closer coordination and more efficient progress toward the firm’s objectives. Better that the captain makes frequent course corrections than to discover too late that a neglected crew has headed the ship for the wrong port. Moreover, in leaner economic times, when workers are asked to do more with less, frequent but encouraging feedback can demonstrate a firm’s concern for their professional satisfaction and its investment in their success. Please let us know what you think of these ideas. We look forward to dialog with you – and to better times.

The Two Patterns of Decision Making

Great business leaders are great decision makers. The ability to collect, analyze, and act on complex data is one of the key success factors for success in business. But recent research is revealing how difficult it is for human beings to objectively weigh data and act accordingly. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. His recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, reveals a number of the thinking traps that bedevil decision-makers. For example:

  • We focus on one attribute of a situation and use it to answer a broad and complicated question (the “focusing illusion”).
  • We over-generalize from small samples.
  • We are terrible at intuitively understanding probabilities and often believe that the less-probable alternative is the more-probable one (the “conjunction fallacy”).
  • We will choose a certain small reward when a larger one is available with some risk, even when the odds are in our favor (risk aversion).
  • We are more unhappy about a loss than we are happy about a gain of the same amount (loss aversion).

Kahneman suggests that our thinking patterns are divided into two systems: one that makes rapid, intuitive decision based on feelings, images, and associations; and the other that uses logic and probability. We typically rely on the first system and have to force ourselves to use the second one. So what can you do to improve your decision-making skills as a business leader? First, be aware of the current research and apply it to your understanding of yourself and how you operate. Second, discipline yourself to look for your thinking trips and counteract them with your logical, analytic skills. One technique is to think about your problem as if it were someone else’s. I especially like and endorse Kahnemen’s suggestion of a “pre-mortem.” Before you finalize your decision, imagine that it is a year later and your choice turned out to be horribly wrong. Then write a history of how and why it went wrong. This creative approach will help you pinpoint fallacies in your logic and make better choices for your business.

The Power of Candy

Ever notice how many people in business settings have a jar of candy on their desks? Psychological research has just determined that this is smart business, as well as a good way to satisfy your sweet tooth. An upcoming study to be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology has found that people who like sweets are seen as more agreeable by others. Not only that, but the sweet lovers actually were more agreeable and helpful than their peers who preferred other tastes. So if you want to be seen by your colleagues as easy to get along with, keep that candy jar well-stocked!

Meaningful Feedback

An executive recently shared his leadership assessment feedback from a previous consultant with me. As usual, the report was massive. It was beautifully printed and bound, with lovely charts and graphs. It included one computer-generated report after another, each with a multitude of scales and interpretations of what each score meant. The reports also included a number of developmental suggestions, some of them contradicting each other. “Did you find this helpful?” I asked. “Sort of,” he responded. “I learned some things about myself, but I didn’t really get a clear sense of what I should do next.” Exactly! I am tired of seeing these reports. In my opinion, they are a lazy shortcut for the consultant. Don’t get me wrong –formal assessment tools can be a useful part of an executive assessment process. But you don’t need a consultant to get undigested test results. There are a multitude of self-assessment tools available for free on the internet. So if you are going to pay a high-priced consultant, you have the right to expect more. Here’s what first-rate professional feedback looks like: • The consultant has spent some time – at least an hour, preferably two or more – getting to know you, your situation, and what questions the assessment is designed to answer. • Any assessment tools have been chosen to answer specific questions about you, not a scatter-shot approach. These tools are well-researched, scientifically-designed instruments that have been proven to measure what they say they measure. • You get both written and verbal feedback from the consultant, preferably in person. • The report is written by the consultant, not computer-generated. It incorporates the data from the interview as well as the assessment tools and synthesizes them around major themes and findings. Individual test results may be included, but they are supporting evidence, not the whole package. • The consultant gives you at most three developmental recommendations. These are specific and measurable, closely linked to the findings in the report. They are relevant to you, your context, and your goals. There is no point in offering more than three suggestions – no one has the time, energy, or focus to work on that many goals at once. • Your questions get answered. Whether you are seeking information for your own leadership development or using a consultant to help you make decisions about potential new hires, you have a right to expect this level of professional involvement and rigor.