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The Top 7 Mistakes You Might Make That Squander Your Power

All the power in the world won’t help if you can’t avoid these traps.

Key points

  • People needlessly squander their power through common mistakes.
  • These mistakes frequently happen when one first enters an organization.
  • Some common mistakes include inaccurately assessing a situation, mistreating others, and overestimating power and control.

Power is a vast topic, and I’ve already written numerous articles on this blog that cover different dimensions, such as the 10 sources of power, the 7 rules for organizational power, and using power for good. But even while knowing all these things, you will still be very limited in what you can do if you make the very common mistake of squandering your power, whether you’ve amassed a lot of it or are just getting started.

The squandering of power can occur in different situations, but one situation in which it consistently occurs a lot is when people enter new organizations. This applies equally to those who join organizations at leadership levels and those who join at entry-level positions. And it happens so often in both cases that any quest to increase your power must include an understanding of how not to squander it.

Nobody Likes a Know-It-All

Everyone loves a good story so let’s start with one. Unfortunately, I once had a gifted student who never took my Power and Politics class, though they really should have (you’ll soon see why). Upon graduating, this student—whom we’ll assign the unisex name “Taylor”—was recruited into an extremely prominent company. Naturally, as most of us do when we first enter an organization, Taylor wanted to create a good impression. That’s not only understandable, it’s advisable, but the problem is the way Taylor went about it, which was to act like a know-it-all. Taylor would even correct people who were 10-15 years senior in rank at the company. Now, in fairness, Taylor’s attitude was partly rooted in reality as this student really was brilliant. But always remember, dear readers: it doesn’t matter how smart or talented you are if you go about demonstrating it the wrong way.

Eventually, people at the company came to dislike Taylor’s presence enough that Taylor was transferred to a different office of the same company in a different city. Taylor got lucky, maybe because the company recognized that there was a genuinely talented employee beneath the annoying exterior (and, fortunately, Taylor did learn and change). But many people don’t get so lucky, and their jobs, or even their careers, can end before they even begin.

To be clear, the real lesson here isn’t that nobody likes a know-it-all (which, of course, is true). And in partial defense of Taylor, Taylor wasn’t trying to be obnoxious or insufferable. Taylor was just trying to make a good impression.

But, again, what’s the one mantra for effective communication? Do what’s effective, not what you feel like doing. Showing off knowledge is what Taylor felt like doing, and even though well-intended, good intentions don’t cut it. That was Taylor’s mistake, and therein lies the real lesson: if you want to build your power, you must avoid the most common and deadliest mistakes that will squander your power.

The Seven Deadly Sins

As mentioned, squandering power is something anyone can do. While it often happens when people first enter an organization, it can also happen to people who’ve spent many years, or even their entire careers, at an organization.

Here are the seven most common mistakes that you can make to squander your power:

  1. Not knowing what your goals are. By “goals,” I mean both long-term goals and immediate, short-term goals. The reason why this is such a foundational mistake is that unless you know what your goals are, you’re not going to know all the ways you need to be careful and which problems to avoid so that you don’t accidentally sabotage your power (remember, power is nothing more than the means to achieving goals). Unfortunately, people sabotage themselves all the time and don’t realize it until after the fact.
  2. Inaccurately assessing the situation. Sometimes people are clear about their goals, but they sabotage themselves anyway, and often it’s because of this second deadly mistake. To use an easy example, let’s say that you want a raise, which is reasonable enough. But let’s say that the company you work for currently is undergoing difficult times, and your boss has stated, sincerely, that as much as she wants to give you a raise, it’s going to have to wait. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re otherwise treated well and are already paid a competitive wage. It’s still reasonable to want a raise if there are good reasons for it, but an accurate assessment of the situation may be that you should bide your time. But if you stubbornly keep pushing your boss, you could be squandering some of the power you’ve already built in that organization.
  3. Failing to keep your ego in check. It’s always advisable to keep your ego in check, but it can be especially important to do so in certain situations. Joining an organization at entry-level is definitely one of these situations, but so is taking over as the new CEO. Despite the legitimate power that such a high leadership position affords you, you have not yet won your employees’ respect, and acting like you are God’s gift to that organization, no matter how genuinely successful you might be, is only going to undermine the efficacy of your legitimate power and may cause employees to use their coercive power against you.
  4. Underestimating dependence and interdependence. This often goes hand-in-hand with Mistake #3, but it can also be separate. Sometimes people can be humble and gracious while still not understanding the extent to which their goals are dependent on other people. Nothing can be done by your efforts alone. This is part of the very definition of power, which is not just about lording over others but gaining their support and cooperation.
  5. Mistreating or disrespecting others. Again, this can go hand-in-hand with Mistakes #3 and #4, but it’s not always the same thing. Having a big ego can lead to some people mistreating others, but there are plenty of people with small egos who mistreat and disrespect others. Their small egos are sometimes exactly why they do so. Likewise, you’re more inclined to mistreat others if you don’t understand how dependent you are on their cooperation, but even people who know this still mistreat others sometimes. Well, there’s no faster way to get people not to want to cooperate with you.
  6. Overestimating your power and control. Past success can lead you to overestimate how much power and control you actually have. This can lead to serious missteps that drain your existing power or prevent you from building up power if you’re new to an organization. Past success can also make you forget the limits of what power can do. Yes, power can increase your level of influence, and, yes, it can even make it possible to coerce people to some degree. But no matter your level of existing power or past success, you ultimately still can’t control what people do. The delusion of complete control has led to the downfall of many a powerful individual.
  7. Unnecessarily exposing yourself to harm. This one is very broad in that there are many possible ways to expose yourself to harm unnecessarily. Here, we are defining “harm” as anything that reduces your power or halts its growth. For one thing, making Mistakes #1 to #6 would be exposing yourself to harm, but there are many other ways as well. Not understanding the importance of organizational politics or not even attempting is another common way people harm themselves. So is breaking the rules of power and political skill. So is otherizing people. And so is doing what they feel like instead of what’s effective. Not all of these are intuitive because some people think that doing what they feel like is actually a sign of their power. No, it’s a sign that they don’t really understand true power.

Now, which of these common mistakes did our friend Taylor make in the story above?

All of them.

Fortunately, Taylor was lucky enough to get a second chance when reassigned to a different office of the company, but not everyone is as lucky. Under different circumstances, Taylor could have easily ruined such an incredible job opportunity, maybe even suffered longstanding career damage, all before it had properly begun. This happens to people more often than it should, making it all the more important to understand how to avoid squandering your power.

But there’s more. You can’t just avoid squandering your power. You have to also know how to build it up, which will be the topic of my next article. See you again soon.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business.

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