Personal Power Run Amok

Personal Power Run Amok

June 18, 2019
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For most of my life, through my late twenties, I was dancer. When I was about 14 I recall being in a dance class in which the teacher—she was my idol—asked us all to do a barrel turn. I had never done that jump and was afraid of falling or looking stupid. Instead of saying any of that or just trying it, I flat-out refused to do it.  I was so intent on avoiding it that I sat down on a bench and crossed my arms in defiance.  It was noticeable and disruptive; a silent tantrum. The rest of the dancers in the class looked uncomfortable and nervous, and one by one, they all demurred trying the jump. Dance classes are not democracies. This was tantamount to a hostile takeover. The teacher left the class early, holding back tears of humiliation. As I watched her pack her dance bag and then leave, I was filled with regret and shame so palpable that I can recall it all these years later with extraordinary clarity. I had done that. My fear and ensuing snit had caused pain and humiliation to someone I loved and admired.

We are all born into a certain amount of innate personal power. We use different words to describe it: Magnetism. Force of personality. Aura. When it is used charmingly, we call it charisma. Of course, like all strengths, it comes with a flip side. People who are ignorant about the power of their own personality can wield it as a weapon, either deliberately or not. As enticing and seductive as the positive force can be, the negative force –especially when unintentional –can be lethal in teams, organizations and families.

When personal power is misused or used irresponsibly, the atmosphere and everyone sharing it suffers. It’s like an invisible force run amok — the social and organizational equivalent of Edward Scissorhands running through a crowd.  And like a freewheeling Scissorhands, it leaves behind a bloodbath. Everyone has seen examples of it:

  • An attendee whose dismissiveness, contempt or exasperation is writ large on their face and body posture in meetings.
  • The scintillating dinnertime storyteller who doesn’t yield the floor and next to whom everyone else’s contribution seems bland – so they stop trying.
  • The engineer who brings his bad mood to the office, distracting everyone with his stomping and angry gestures.
  • The surly team-member who grudgingly attends team trainings but doesn’t participate except by checking the time and tapping away on a mobile phone.

None of these individuals are being overtly disruptive in the ways that we normally describe it. But all of them are undermining the collegiality, community, creativity and joy in the activities they are attending. Plus, each of them would protest if accused of doing so. “But I didn’t say anything!”, “I was just sitting there!” “All I did was answer the question.” “I fulfilled the required attendance!”.

In leadership you are charged with harnessing your own personal power responsibly, and ensuring that you only exercise it in ways that produce results and better the organization. When leaders fail to do that the consequences cascade outward in seismic waves to the rest of the team and its work.

Everyone who wields their personality irresponsibly is not charismatic, some are just forceful and others simply immature or self-centered. The characteristic falls along a continuum that ranges from the super-charismatic human magnet who is occasionally damaging, to the toxic and unavoidable presence who seems to need always to garner attention whether positive or negative, regardless of who they overshadow or damage.  In fact, many of the most irresponsible uses of personality power that I’ve seen were from people who might otherwise be unnoticeable. Perhaps their toxicity developed in response to feeling invisible. But regardless, whether you believe yourself to be the kind of personality type I’m describing or not, it’s important to take an inventory of your own behavior in groups or group settings.

One way to begin getting some insight into where you fall on this continuum is either to solicit candid feedback from your colleagues, or more easily accomplished, from your boss.

If you are a boss, it’s critical to determine if your team includes people who fit this bill and take action. Oftentimes, this Edward Scissorhands syndrome is a function of a few related characteristics which can change and alter over time. The most obvious is simple immaturity.  Think about the prototypical teenager: Eye-rolling, screen-staring, tantrum throwing obnoxiousness is the amalgam of every workplace Scissorhands.  What makes some teenagers so annoying is their self-centeredness and disregard for the others (adults) around them. Of course, if you are fifteen, it is perfectly appropriate for you to spend most of your time thinking about yourself and learning how to be who you are to become. That will often include performative expressiveness with little concern for the impact on those around you. You may even relish the reactions you elicit, negative though they may be.

But when you are an adult in a professional environment, you have (or should have) outgrown that.  As a leader or manager, you need to notice and call it out if you see or know of it occurring in your team. NEVER fall into the trap of thinking that there is any level of performance by any team member that is so valuable it warrants overlooking this toxic workplace behavior. If you make that error, eventually, the fallout will eat the results you attempted to preserve.

The key to helping someone notice the tendency in themselves is to be able to distinguish the actual behavior (eye-rolling, door-slamming, raising one’s voice, making facial gestures that indicate boredom or exasperation) from any diagnosis or attribution of motivation you have about them (looking bored, seeming like you disagree…..). There is a difference between coaching a direct report on behavior and telling them they ought to feel differently. It is entirely appropriate to explain that eye-rolling during a presentation is rude and telegraphs disrespect. It is not appropriate to suggest that you know how your team-member feels about the presenter or what his motivations may be. These domains – fact and mental state—are distinct. One is fair game, the other is unknown and out of bounds.

People who wield their personal power irresponsibly are usually the last to find out. The damage they leave in their wake can be pervasive. Unlike malicious people who can be called on the carpet for deliberate destructiveness, clueless team-members can do a lot of damage before anyone says a thing, despite their having no evil intentions.

Results may not be the first thing that ebbs. Instead, atmosphere, collegiality, trust, innovation, expressiveness and team cohesion suffer. Job one for anyone working with other humans – regardless of role – is to interrogate your own behavior and the reactions of those around. You will need to work hard to find out whether your own personal power is a runaway pair of scissors! Next is observing the individuals you manage and their effect on others. If a team member’s entrance is often followed by a sudden silencing of conversation, or by others in the room looking “meaningfully” at each other, take note. These are bits of evidence that personality may be running amok. Pay attention and document the behaviors. In the absence of truly excellent 360° data, those clues may be the only signs in advance of an actual, organizational cold war. Disarming the Edward Scissorhands in your organization can save your team and your company!

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