I signed too... Sandy said this is "so 80s."  Well, ok, apparently I'm not too original

I signed too… Sandy said this is “so 80s.” Well, ok, apparently I’m not too original

So you wanna know what I learned from this little Belfast trip, don’tcha? 

C’mon, admit it…

Over the past couple weeks, many of my conversations have gone something like this:

Friend:  Hey Mel, how was Belfast?

Me:  Oh man, it was amazing.  I loved it there – great people, great food, incredible architecture, a rich history… I’d go back in a heartbeat.  The project was a little rough, 10 to 15 hour days, even over the weekend, y’know…[chuckle]

Friend:   Did you know the people on your team?

Me:  Nah, we never met before until we arrived.

Friend:   Oh, gosh.  Yeah, I don’t know if I could do that… [snort]

Now let’s get real:  people intuitively know that working in groups is ridiculously difficult, especially when you don’t know your team, there are cultural differences involved and the timetable is compressed.  As a social-cognitive psychologist, both the Belfast project and my previous one in the UAE were my own personal psychological laboratory for up-close-and-personal learning about one of my very favorite topics, INTERPERSONAL POWER.

Interpersonal power?

Yes, power. 

I was a rat in the maze on this one.  Good times.

And because I think interpersonal power is so dang important, I’m going to give you a 5 minute course, no travel required.

(But first, a disclaimer:  the views, research interpretation and opinions expressed in this post – and this blog in general – are my own and in no way reflect or are associated with those of my employer.  Just in case you were wondering.  Continuing…)

Devito (2004) describes power as present in all relationships and interactions with others.  It influences decisions you make, the friends you have and the success you feel.  He states that “interpersonal power is what enables one person to control the behavior of the other” (p. 334) and describes 5 types of power:

  1.  Referent power occurs when others want to be like you or identified with you, often as a result of attractiveness or prestige.  Examples would include employees who emulate a manager or a young girl who looks up to her older sister.
  2. Legitimate power occurs when others “believe you have the right – by virtue of your position – to influence or control their behavior” (p. 343).  Managers, parents and teachers all hold legitimate power.
  3. Expert power occurs when others perceive you as having knowledge in a specific domain.  Any type of expertise, when it is recognized by other people, provides this kind of power, as seen in doctors, lawyers and even… psychologists.  ;-P
  4. Information or persuasion power occurs when others are compelled by your “ability to communicate logically and persuasively” (p. 344).
  5. Reward and coercive power occurs when you are able to reward, punish, or remove rewards from others.  Usually, individuals with this type use combinations of reward and coercive powers to control others’ behavior.  For example, teachers can control grades, social approval/disapproval, letters of recommendation, etc.; managers can control raises, promotions, social approval/disapproval, etc.

It’s important to note here that power is defined by how others see you, not how you see yourself.  While you might think you’re a great communicator, for example, it’s really others who perceive you this way.  So unless you get a lot of clues from others that you’re persuasive, clear and logical, you don’t really possess this power.

The other point I find helpful to overtly recognize is that we also give power to other people.  If you listen to someone and allow them to influence you, you’re giving them information power.  If someone uses threat of coercive power and you bend to their will, you’re handing them power.  It’s often difficult (and possibly painful) to recognize our own role in someone else’s power.

My Belfast and Al Ain projects were excellent opportunities to observe how I and my various teammates responded to often dramatic shifts in power over a short period.   In our regular day jobs, we were all probably well-accustomed to the type of power we have (or didn’t have) and maybe even took it for granted.  Going to a new, independently-defined project meant that some of us may have lost familiar forms of power.  Others gained forms of power they never had felt or experienced before.   All this led to a bunch of individual stress and emotion, natural outcomes of such a major, rapid interpersonal power shift.  Nonetheless, there was a project to be done:   a huge part of both our individual and team success depended on quickly sorting out power within our work teams and coping with it under intense time pressure.

As you might guess, these projects were profound opportunities for self-reflection – and honestly, it wasn’t any different than the issues we all have on a day-to-day basis, no matter where we interact, working or not.

It was just more… intense than most of the time. 

Here are six questions (plus a bonus) that helped me sort out my personal lessons learned:

What 1-2 kinds of power do I mostly rely on in my usual roles?  Which ones do I perceive myself as lacking? 

This helped me understand how I get things done on a day to day basis.  The power I have as a mom is quite different than the power I have as an employee, for example.  And I’m way more cognizant of the power I lack than owning what I have.  More important:  do I really want a different type of power or am I just adopting some external standard of what’s supposedly important?

Oops.  Work in progress.

What power do I have within this specific situation?

This question helped me recognize how I could best use my skills within the context of each project.  In my case, the power I acquired was similar in both teams but realized in differently based on the relative power of others in the group.

What emotions am I experiencing as I interact in this situation?  Am I able to control my emotions enough to stay productive and engaged?

Ah, emotions.  Negative emotions like frustration, anger, depression are common when you are coping with challenging situations, like team interaction, travel, deadlines.   The extent to which we are able to diffuse our own negative emotions is often directly related to our individual and group success (real or perceived).  Obviously, some of us are better at it than others – I certainly don’t claim to be great myself, although I’m much better than when I was younger (hallelujah).

How can I use my power to achieve the best possible outcome for this project?

This is possibly the most difficult question to answer honestly, because benefit for the project might mean you won’t get some highly desired personal benefits.  It also means you have to have a realistic and accurate view of your own contributions as perceived by yourself and others, which can also be a serious freaking challenge!   In my own case, on one team, I had to fight myself to enable the best project outcome because my personal needs demanded exactly the opposite behavior of the best team outcome, so I had to stretch myself and counter my own nagging, perpetual self-doubt (sound familiar, ladies?).  I also had some feedback that made me (temporarily) question whether I should be stretching or asserting.  UncomfortableStretched and asserted anyway.   On my other team, I was able to serve the project while simultaneously serving my own needs way more easily.  Others expressed similar internal conflicts, although they might not have seen it in quite this way.

Bonus question:   how can I build on my natural power in my everyday life?

Sure, it’s easy to go off on some adventure, get some big view of yourself in a new context and make some changes thanks to your new self-reality.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier to do it in your everyday life and way less difficult on your family.  Look around.  Be honest.  Talk to people.  You can figure it out if you get out of your own way, because it’s been there all along.

Done and done.  Hope you enjoyed this 5 minute exercise in self-insight. 

(Yeah, honest self-questioning can make you squirm uncomfortably.)

Now, go forth and prosper.  Oh… and let me know if the seven questions illuminated as much for you as they did for me!  #smartercities Challenge

Reference:  Devito, J.  (2004)  The interpersonal communication book, 10th ed.  Boston:  Pearson.