Mid Career Stuckness
Saturday, July 15, 2023
It may sound harsh, but let me offer a hypothesis — most of us get disillusioned and potentially stuck in mid-careers, and the most common cause is not learning about power and influence early enough. It is not a lack of technical knowledge and related competencies that makes one get stuck in their mid-career — it is the lack of an understanding of their power, the power of others, and then not developing their sources of power and using those to influence others to get things done — is what gets you stuck often. This stuckness starts with an improper understanding of “power” and “influence” and subsequently not recognizing and appreciating your power and that of others. Based on an ad hoc sample, I can tell that many people at work secretly hope that power doesn’t exist and stay away from it, which is sad and career-limiting.
Why is this usually a mid-career phenomenon? In the early-career phase, your technical competencies get you the job and, perhaps, a few promotions. By technical, I don’t mean competencies related to software technology but essential skills associated with a particular profession. But as you move further in your career, what gets you the job and helps you succeed is your ability to influence (and be influenced) to produce ever-larger outcomes. Your technical competencies still matter, but not as much as they do during your early career. That’s because larger outcomes appropriate for your job level depend on getting others’ support and contributions to do what you want to get done. Those others may be your direct reports if you’re a manager, your peers, your manager, their peers, and even people outside your company. Even more important, what you want to get done can’t just be anything — it must be consequential and desirable to the organization you work for. So, you need others to cooperate for you to be successful. This is influencing and takes non-technical work.
But we don’t consider influencing as work and don’t put enough time and effort. There is a simple reason for that — most of us believe “we know what’s right” and “can get it done” but fail to recognize that succeeding at work requires creating willingness and cooperation between individuals with different motivations and different stakes in any outcome. You can only create that willingness and cooperation by recognizing and appreciating your power, that of others, and each others’ needs.
What’s the process of influencing called? It is leadership. As I mentioned in my previous article on followership, leadership is a process of influencing a group of people to produce some common goals. Once you ground this definition of leadership and put aside all the pop-leadership posts on social media (particularly LinkedIn, these days) on what a leader should be or do, it is easy to realize that leadership is an influencing process. When you fail to influence others, you naturally fail to do the job you’re hired for. As Paul O’Neill said in The Irreducible Components of Leadership, “With leadership, anything is possible, and without it, nothing is possible.” You can replace “leadership” in this quote with “influence” to get the point — with influence, anything of consequence to others is possible. Without it, nothing of consequence to others is possible. I added “of consequence to others” to highlight that the net outcome should mean something to you and others.
What’s the role of power in this influencing process? Before answering, let’s first put aside common misconceptions about power. Many associate power with being dictatorial, telling people what to do, being political for self-gain, being brash, contradicting, bullying, etc. We most commonly associate these with “not being nice.” Those are all signs of demonstration of power, but there is more to power than such perceptions. Let’s get back to definitions.
The most commonly used definition of power in leadership is that power is the capacity to influence others’ behaviors. For example, assume that I hold an enormous amount of money and dangle a big bundle of cash in front of you to make you dance against your volition, then my source of power is my wealth. You might consider such power bad or good depending on your beliefs (including ethics) and any harm done. Or, consider that you’re skilled at negotiating with difficult customers, and your boss relies on you and not your colleagues to deal with difficult customers. Then your source of power is your negotiation expertise. Power is essential to influence others, and you need to recognize and develop multiple sources of power to be effective at work.
With me so far? Assuming that you are convinced that power exists and can be a useful tool to influence others, the next question is, can you recognize your or others’ power? Why is this question relevant? Influencing is causing a psychological change in others, including their attitudes, behaviors, actions, etc., towards you. Then you better know what they want and where their power comes from. Also, ask yourself what you want and what power you have to influence others. Unless you recognize your power and that of others and what each wants, the influencing process feels like navigating without a compass. Let us review some commonly identified sources of power.
- Your technical expertise: Your technical competencies in your professional domain are an important source of power for you to influence others. For those early in their career, their technical expertise is likely the strongest source of their power. As you look around at those early in their careers, what draws others to them is their ability to apply technical skills to get something others want. If your manager always allocates important and difficult technical problems to a few, it is most likely because your manager needs them done well. The more technical expertise you build, the stronger your influence on your manager. You will find this source of power called “expert power” in the leadership literature.
- How you feel about others and others feel about you: When people see you as a role model, like working with you, want to be associated with you, or are drawn towards you for your charisma, you can influence them without formal authority. Treating others with enthusiasm, kindness, and empathy helps you influence others. Don’t make the mistake of always leading with data and using rational arguments to influence others initially. Consider Ted Lasso, the lead character in the TV show of the same name. He is not a football expert. You don’t see him rewarding and punishing people. Instead, look at how he feels about others and makes them feel. He was kind, transparent, ethical, present (well, mostly), considerate, etc., which allowed him to unify the team and influence others. He never held grudges, and often said, “Be a goldfish” (referring to Goldfish’s short memory). Check why others were drawn to him. The strongest factor of his influence is how he made others feel. You’re far from building such power if you see yourself as important and others as lesser beings.
- What you have and others want, and vice versa: Don’t ignore what others want and what you want. That awareness helps you understand the dynamics of power and influence. Recently, in a coaching conversation, someone asked me about how to influence their boss about a project. I asked that person whether they knew what their boss wanted. The answer was no. Therein lies the trouble — you’re seeking someone to support you. But you are not entitled to that support. Before approaching others for what you want, learn about what they want and see if you can be of help. Through that discovery, you might find a path to get you what you want while providing what they want. You may even drop your project if you find a better opportunity in what your manager wants.
- Your role and title: I’ve coached several in their mid-career, who were feeling helpless but possessing important-enough titles at work. I can not overemphasize this — your role and title give you the power to influence others. In the leadership literature, this source of power is also called “legitimate power” — it is the power that comes from others’ perception that you ought to do certain things or act a certain way. Usually, organization structures, roles, titles, and even social norms (like someone being called a “lead”) grant you this power. Say, your title at work is “Director of Engineering” or a “Distinguished Engineer.” You may think of such a title as a nice gesture your company granted you based on your accomplishments — like an honor bestowed upon you. But that’s a myopic interpretation. Your company gave you that title for you to use to produce results. You should therefore be comfortable enough to disagree or disapprove decisions, introduce new ways of working or procedures, or lobby for things because you’re a Director of Engineering or a Distinguished Engineer. Such actions and decisions may sound non-democratic and unilateral, but that’s expected of you based on your role and title. You’re not supposed to act helplessly and ignore to use your role and title to assert decisions and set direction. You should know your role and title-level expectations at your work and go beyond those.
- Your place in the org hierarchy: No matter what you hear about flat organizational structures and everyone being equal, your place in the organizational hierarchy acts as a source of power. Who you report to and who reports to you matters in the influencing process. The reporting relationship may grant you access to information early and often, which you may use to influence others. It may sound unfair, but accept that the reporting relationship can play a role in the influencing process and deal with it rather than ignore it and regret it later. After all, even where people sit in the office (such as people sitting in the same row as the big boss vs. people sitting away) may indicate their importance and contribute to their power in the organization. Pay attention to such subtle factors to recognize your source of power and that of others.
- Your relationships: Your network, including people you know and those who know you, can help you influence others. Relationships give you information, ideas, knowledge, and expertise that can assist you. Without such a network, how would people know that you exist, that you are looking for such and such, and that you can offer such and such? Reach out to others, and be available to others. Be a node in a graph and not a singleton.
- Your ability to reward and punish: If you’re a people manager, you likely possess the ability to reward people (such as promotions, bonuses, equity, etc.) as well punish them by not granting them what they need, or worse yet, take away what they already have, such as letting them go. Such a source of power is common in workplaces, and it influences employees’ behavior. For example, the current economy and recent massive layoffs continue to influence employee behaviors for fear of being the next to be fired. Operating under such fear does not seem fair, but recognize that such factors play a role in influencing behaviors.
These are some examples of sources of power. I listed these to give you an idea that you may already be powerful to influence others, what you lack, and recognize the power of others. Such recognition is a fundamental step in the influencing process.
Note that there is no single source of power that works all the time. You have to pick and choose based on the situation and the people involved in that situation. Each source will have different effects on others — some of which may positively influence them toward the common goal, and some may not. There is ample literature to learn more. Read Understanding the Dynamics of Power in Healthy Organizations for a gentle introduction to power. Get Jeffrey Pfeffer’s books like Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t and Managing With Power. Better yet, find ways to take his classes at Stanford.
Finally, don’t consider that others can’t have power for you to have power. A healthy demonstration of power is not a zero-sum game. You can be humane, kind, empathetic, respectful and yet exercise power. Don’t let the pursuit of power take out joy. Being respectful, and making others, including those with fewer sources of power than you, feel better and important helps you and the other person. Your sources of power might vary, but an effective combination of the power of different individuals can produce exceptional outcomes.