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Women in Leadership: Use Your Power Positively


There’s an often used saying, “fake it until you make it,” meaning people should be someone they’re not until they get what they want. An example might be the business professional who pretends to like certain things or believe a set of values in order to get a promotion. Then once they have the promotion, the individual can either stop the charade or continue with the inauthentic behavior.

Amy Cuddy, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, suggests a different point of view on the well-worn phrase. She says individuals should “fake it until you become it.” Instead of viewing the behavior change as temporary to achieve a desired result, it’s about creating small but successive behavior changes with the goal of gaining the confidence to be ourselves.

Human resources professionals understand that confidence isn’t an easy thing. Not only do we have to deal with our own confidence but we have to deal with how others have confidence in us. And we have to coach others to have confidence in themselves. Those dynamics aren’t always working in perfect alignment. Have you ever been in a situation where a group had confidence in you but inside you were wondering whether you could really accomplish what the group wanted? On the reverse side, have you ever known that you could accomplish something only to feel that others had some doubts?

The way we manage confidence in ourselves and with others is with our presence. In her book “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges,” Cuddy uses the story of an actor on his way to an audition to illustrate her message. The actor is nervous and anxious, questioning whether he should actually be there. That he might not be deserving of the audition. But in his moment of self-inducted panic, he remembers an activity that a friend told him about gaining focus and confidence.

“Find a private place and pose like Wonder Woman for two minutes.”

You know the move: standing tall, head held high, fists on hips, and feet slightly apart. So the actor finds a bathroom stall and does the pose. For two full minutes. Then he proceeds to have the best audition of his career. The actor had confidence. He conveyed confidence to others. Cuddy goes on to explain that organizations are using this move to teach young women and girls how to build confidence. You can hear Cuddy tell the story in “Your body language shapes who you are”, which is the second most viewed talk in TED’s history.

Confidence gives us the opportunity to “become it” – as in “fake it until you become it.” And the “it” is the understanding of how to positively use our personal power.

The use of personal power isn’t a bad thing. Alice Walker, author of the acclaimed novel “The Color Purple,” is quoted as saying “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” We cannot minimize or joke about power. You might have heard or even said, “Who me? I don’t have any power.” The reality is everyone has power. It’s understanding what kind you have and how much.

While we have a tendency to focus on coercive power, there are several types of power that we should be trying to cultivate in today’s business world. Human resources professionals are very aware of connection power, defined as the power of people we know and have relationships with. Networking is a impactful tool that brings tremendous value. Another is expert power, being the power associated with being particularly skilled at something. We are all good at something. Expert is not limited to doctoral degrees and awards.

As women leaders, we need to be comfortable with the use of power. We also have to be comfortable giving power to others. It takes confidence to share power. Shared power is how everyone succeeds. Wonder Woman is okay with others having super powers as long as they don’t abuse them.

Speaking of abusing power, because we have a tendency to focus on people who abuse power, Walker’s quote about power is noteworthy. Failing to acknowledging our power can be equally damaging to our credibility. Especially when others perceive us as having power and not using it. Leaders have to be careful in their efforts to be modest that they don’t dismiss their ability to influence change.

Recent research indicates that female dominated professions (like HR) take a hit when it promotes diversity. However, if women don’t advocate for greater diversity, then how will it happen? Human resources leaders need to use their ability and opportunity to advocate for positive change within our organizations and community. Because as much as we’ve made progress, even Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, admits we still have work to do.

For women leaders, the rules of business are still evolving. And, that’s not a bad thing. We have the opportunity to make the rules what we want them to be.

  • Constantly create small opportunities to build confidence in ourselves and others
  • Understand personal power is important and not to be minimized
  • Focus on the positive results that can be achieved using our personal power
  • Hold ourselves and others accountable for using power responsibly

As a human resources leader, it’s part of our role to coach employees within the organization. Employees need to be confident in their work and in sharing their views about the best way to accomplish their goals. One of our greatest legacies as a leader is to inspire others, which means understanding how to use our personal power to “fake it until we become it.” And encouraging others to do the same.

This post was written by Sharlyn Lauby from HR Bartender

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