David Bradford and Allan Cohen have written a new book, Influencing Up. They are the authors of the previous best-selling leadership book, Influence Without Authority. Stanford Business School has posted an interview with Bradford about the duo's latest work. Bradford has a key insight about how we perceive ourselves relative to our bosses:
What does it take for a direct report to gain power in the employee-boss relationship?
First, not falling into the trap of accentuating the power gap. Research, much of it done here at Stanford, shows that when there is a significant gap between the most powerful and the least powerful, dysfunctional things happen for both parties. In the book, we say that "high power makes you deaf and low power gives you laryngitis." When you have high power, you tend to overestimate your abilities and can be closed to influence, which can be very dangerous in a fast-changing world. On the other hand, if you perceive you have very little power, you tend to shut down instead of offering alternate points of view, which is really what is needed. Now, sometimes power is objective: some people have a lot of money and others have very little; someone is CEO and another is a clerk. But we often exaggerate the power gaps, and when we do that we hurt ourselves and our bosses.
I think Bradford has made a good point. Sometimes, employees do exaggerate the power gaps. They do not realize the other sources of power that they may have. Clearly, the boss has the formal authority. However, the subordinate may have deep expertise on a particular specialized subject. The subordinate also may have cultivated a network of collaborators and allies in other parts of the organization. That network may be a source of power. The subordinate may have key facts on their side. The question becomes: How do you present that data most effectively? In short, managing up does indeed require a thorough assessment of one's power in a particular situation. Avoiding the knee-jerk conclusion that a massive power gap exists is good advice.