Over the past six years of coaching incredibly thoughtful, intelligent and highly-committed women, the theme of developing personal power and influence has been a recurring one. As a coach, I have been inclined to help my clients figure out how to develop this power and influence. One strategy has been by doing some "influence mapping" or, more plainly, by tuning into the world view of the client's boss or other people he/she would like to influence; What are her priorities? What are the pressures on her? What's his work style and learning style? How does he like to be communicated to? What does she value? What are her weaknesses? etc.
One of my first clients had an abusive boss, and I was too green to help her spot it. We focused on influencing strategies that had her taking all the responsibility for the relationship. In reality, these strategies played right into the boss' perception that he was all-powerful as she scrambled to tune in to his needs, but could never, ever get it right.
Since then, I've studied up on how to spot an abuser and I am committed to helping my clients distinguish the difference between the need to gain influence v. the need to put an end to bullying.
Before I go from power & influence and on to abuse, let me clarify what I mean by power and influence.
We all need to have some degree of power and influence at work. We need an appropriate degree of power to influence the direction our organizations take; to advocate for our subordinates and their careers, to secure approval for investment in our ideas, to gain the ear of decision makers.With a sense of appropriate power, we feel legitimate. We feel a sense of personal autonomy and value. We feel as though we are living and working with dignity.
Most of us have also experienced some degree of powerlessness. It enters into our lives suddenly with a change in leader, a loss of funding, a new set of organizational priorities. We know when our work feels irrelevant or undervalued to an organization or a new leader. We feel it when something shifts and we go from being able to make decisions to having to have every little thing approved. We feel pained when we realize that we've somehow been bumped lower down in the hierarchy or that we've somehow slipped in status.
Sometimes a sense of powerlessness is innocuous and part of a natural course of events. For example, with a new administration, some policy areas become less relevant and people working in policy shops have little power over the fact that their area of expertise has just become a career liability. Or when someone leaves an organization and we lose a champion with access to the decision makers. Or when organizational shifts cause us from being known and trusted to being unknown. Just because we feel powerless does not mean we are experiencing an abusive boss or work environment. In these situations it's possible to gain influence, reposition, or to make a determination that the job is no longer a good fit.
What's harder to spot is when our sense of powerlessness (and resulting stress, anxiety, over-working, lack of balance) happens because we find ourselves being led by an abusive boss.
The trick about identifying an abuser is not excusing repeated, persistent, negative behavior. It's so easy to excuse because none of us is a perfect leader ourselves; Who among us hasn't been in a bad mood that has affected others? Who among us hasn't felt over-worried and maybe micro-managed a bit too much? Who among us hasn't had a lapse in judgement when we feel our own status is threatened? Who among us hasn't been a hypocrite? Who among us hasn't been inconsistent, arbitrary or thoughtless in our directions at some point? Who among us hasn't considered how loyal people are on our team or felt a sense of paranoia?
We are all human, and many of us, especially women, look for ways to understand our bosses and try and meet their needs.
When you realize that abusive behavior is persistent, it's important to stand your ground.
First, recognize that if you're spinning your wheels with reasonable approaches to improving the working relationship, your boss isn't reasonable. Tell yourself this again and again - you are no longer operating in the realm of normal, professional behavior.
Second, consider the following questions:
A final word: no one is immune from developing abusive behavior. My clients who have experienced abuse recently (and there have been a steady increase in this number of clients coming to me with abusive bosses -- I have my theories as to why) have worked in schools, with social workers, in the most "caring" branches of government. Even people in "nice" helping careers can become abusers and they can, in other contexts, be very "nice" people. Don't be fooled.
The first time I lived in London, I believed, for three whole years, that I didn't have any real friends or community. I compared it constantly to my "ideal" life in Brooklyn that was constructed entirely around a sense of community grounded in shared cultural heritage and a particular set of social justice values.
Then I moved back to the states, to Alexandria, VA and I missed my London friends. The "new" London friends. They were good friends. They missed me. They wrote me real letters. (Facebook was just catching on, but still, they wrote me letters and cards! British people are SO good at letters and cards).
The realization: I wasted so much time and emotional energy mourning my life in New York that it made me unwilling to be fully present, open and appreciative of my life in London.
This realization + deep work with my friend, coach and hypnotherapist, Laura Palmer, helped me to let go of the artificial external barriers to human connection (accents, sense of humor, cultural differences) and connect with human beings anywhere. I am fully open (on most days -- we all have our bad days), to being deeply connected to people who come into my life.
Being someone who moves every 4-7 years, quickly becoming fully present and establishing human connections have become my most essential life and career skills. Ease of human connection that transcends artificial social constructs is key to positive and successful transitions of all kinds, and my personal practice in this area helps me to provide a deep and authentic level of support to my clients who are embarking on a big life and career change.
So, here are a few quick lessons that I've learned to be able to plop yourself anywhere (new city, new country, new job, new leadership role, new networking environment, etc) and quickly establish authentic, rich connections that lead to genuine relationships:
Our lives and careers uproot us, transport us, lead us down windy paths and present us with unusual detours. With each turn, we have a choice: to connect deeply with those around us, or not.
Jen Walper Roberts is a leadership and transition coach who supports mission-driven women to thrive in leadership, life and in their work to make the world a better place. Jen has led Conspire Coaching since 2011 and continues to develop coaching communities of mission-driven women in North America and Europe. She currently lives in Leeds, UK with her (very handsome) British husband and four strong-willed children. If you're facing a significant life or career transition, or are stretching into a significant leadership role, contact Jen to save time, energy and mental spiraling.
Five steps to recover from extreme anxiety when faced with a new leadership or life challenge.
We've lived in the UK for just over a year now and by far, the most DIFFICULT challenge in this whole life-changing experience has been taking and passing the UK driving test. More difficult than uprooting the children and my business. More difficult than missing my friends and family. More difficult than giving birth to our fourth child just weeks after arriving here.
And by difficult, I mean that the anxiety I felt around passing this test was full-on heart-racing, palms sweating, sleepless nightmare-filled nights, negative-self-talk - - just horrendous. After driving here for almost a year on my US license (you only get on year to drive on a foreign license), I took a test without having taken any UK driving lessons. ("Jen," I encouraged myself, "You've been driving since you were sixteen. You KNOW how to drive!")
I booked a test. I showed up. My anxiety -- all of it -- from the entire past year, showed up during the test. It wasn't a panic attack, but it wasn't far off. I failed.
And then the depression hit. After a year of only minor setbacks, feeling largely confident in our transition and successful in most areas of life, I suddenly questioned everything. Was I making real friends? Was our family OK here? Would my business be viable? Would this move harm all of my relationships back home and cut us off for good? The weight of it all descended upon me and I was crushed.
I had one more month to pass the driving test and, if I didn't, POOF. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, all the progress we had made to settle in would unravel.
As a life and leadership coach, I have practiced all sorts of ways of releasing this anxiety and being present, bold and living into my new chapter of life and career. So, I gave myself a few days to feel crushed before getting back into action. I'm sharing the steps I took here because every leader, every human being, has moments in which the weight we put on ourselves can potentially crush us. The people you know to be the strongest leaders and the most calm and collected have all had these intense moment of fear. What follows are the steps I followed that brought me back from the darkness in an effort to reach those of you who might be in the thick of it.
Step 1: Be Compassionate With Self
When my kids or clients or friends are struggling, I hold a space for them to be with their feelings, feel their sadness, shame, worry, and to first and foremost figure out what will restore them. For me, I knew I needed to take the pressure valve off. I accepted that I would have a few unproductive work days and lazy-mothering days. There would be frozen pizza and videos. There were a few hours of stillness - literally - staring out the window or at a wall - I don't really know what I was doing but I wasn't trying to push through and maintain the hyper-active pace that had been required of me to move our family from the US to the UK, have a baby, settle kids in, settle into a new community, keep serving my US clients whilst figuring out the UK business - I needed to pause. My capacity to handle stress and the weight of it all was beyond overloaded. I allowed myself to do as little as possible and unload the weight. I threw up temporary boundaries. I made some space. And when I was out from under the rock a few days later, I connected with new and old friends because conversation and authentic friendship never fail to re-energize me.
Step 2: Uncover What The Hell Was Going On
What did passing the UK driving test mean to me? Why was I allowing it to crush me so fiercely? What fears were lurking?
Step 3: Accept the Fears That Were Surfaced.
I could write a lot more about this step, but for now, what matters is that once I meditated, wrote and processed all the meaning and pressure I had been putting on the driving test, I was able to have conversations with my husband and friends about these fears and deal with them separately from the driving test. This released the pressure that I was placing on the test itself. And, I gained a new awareness that I had subconsciously ignored all my fears by neatly packaging them up in the concrete form of a driving test. I accepted that with all the transition, packaging them up this way had served me well up to a point. I handled A LOT this year. But, these feelings were telling me that it was time to untie the tidy package and accept that it was time to deal with what was in it. I sought out help to deal with these fears and put a few other conversations and actions in place to begin this process. Accepting these fears, and acknowledging that they were separate from the driving test itself provided a road-map for action.
Step 4: Acknowledge Vulnerability and Get Help Rebuilding Confidence.
I had hoped to avoid shelling out for driving lessons, but after the first failed test, decided that driving while someone was watching and scrutinizing me, and correcting bad habits, was important.
Opening myself up to critique was a reckoning that although driving was an area of competence in the US, it was an area of vulnerability in the UK. I realized that by moving I had given up a sense of adult competence and was defensive and annoyed about people wanting to "teach" me how to drive. Especially if my husband wanted to teach me as HE was the one who wanted to move. (Note: ah, so I'm NOT really super-supportive and positive. I WAS feeling resentment after all! Another blog for another day.)
I signed up for some driving lessons.
There were nuances to driving in the UK that I simply couldn't have learned without an instructor. The way I held the steering wheel had to be changed, the ways they wanted me to perform driving maneuvers was mysterious and surprisingly specific; knowing how to know what the speed limit was in the absence of signs was not in the driving manual. I could go on. In short, I didn't know what I didn't know. These things were corrected.
I booked another driving test, with only a few day to spare before my 1-year clock hit the stroke of midnight.
Step 5. I applied what I've Learned About Stress and Confidence
The night before the test I put things in place to ensure I would have a good night's sleep. I arranged for help with the kids so I could be free of the life-sapping morning routine of getting kids out the door and to school, and the stress of having to then rush to the driving test center.
I cut myself from any more cramming in driving videos and reading the manual. I had the confidence from my lessons that I was indeed a good, safe, experienced driver and I had been armed with the information that I hadn't known that I hadn't known.
I fell asleep to a lovely relaxation visualization. I arrived very early to the test center. I did some power poses and listened to a five minute mindfulness meditation before entering the center. I did not allow myself to look down at my iPhone while waiting (this raises cortisone levels) and instead maintained a friendly open posture and took in the people and the room. I was nervous, but putting energy into maintaining my connection with my surroundings and a global awareness would translate into being able to just be with the tester in the car and set me up to demonstrate that I could drive with good awareness, safety, judgement and confidence.
I'm a 41 year old woman with four children. I run a global coaching practice to build the capacity of women leaders to transform their lives, careers and society. As an adult I have lived in Maryland, New York, London, Alexandria, VA and now Leeds. I've become practiced at significant transitions. Along the way I have built deep relationships, done meaningful work and mostly thrived. I've had setbacks, and mostly, I'm not very phased. Most of the time I am calm and confident. But life caught up with me, and I was terrified and in a panic. I applied what I have learned on my journey so far. I got some help.
And I passed.
We conspire with mission-driven women to lead, succeed and thrive in their careers, lives and organizations.
Individuals: We envision women who are enlivened, empowered and emerged. Our members have clarity of purpose and lead from strengths.
Community: We bring communities of women into the practice of seeing each other's strengths and potential. We envision multiplying communities of women-fueling-women's success and impact.
World: We conspire to unlock the potential energy & contributions of 51% of the human population. When this potential energy, thought power, and talent is unleashed, we will solve even the most difficult problems and transform the world.