One-on-Ones

The Positional Power Barrier

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You’re doing a one-on-one with Mandy, and you ask her how things are. She says “Oh, everything’s fine, thank you!” and so you think to yourself “Ahh! This is going to be another one of those normal one-on-ones,” and you then proceed to conduct the rest of the meeting as you normally would.

Two weeks later, Mandy tells you she’d like to quit, and you find out from Kamal that she’s been hating the assignments you’ve given her for the past four months, and she thinks you’re no longer receptive to her ideas, and frankly, she’s tired of constantly trying to figure out how to bring this up to you because you think “Ahh! This is going to be another one of those normal one-on-ones” and so always steer the conversation to more mundane things.

WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? you think. WHY DIDN’T SHE BRING THIS UP TO ME EARLIER?

The answer to these questions are simple: you’ve fallen prey to your own positional power barrier. This is perfectly understandable! Even managers of intermediate skill levels may find themselves falling prey to their positional power barriers. (I seem to discover a new way to fall prey to this once every quarter or so).

But if you’ve never heard of this before, buckle in! Boy are you going to discover something you’re not going to like.

The Curse of Every Manager

The positional power barrier is my name for an effect that comes into play when you’re made (or promoted, as is often the case) into a manager. You might think you’re still the same — you still sound the same, you get bad breath in the morning, you laugh the same way, you put on your pants one leg at a time — but … no. Something’s different.

In the eyes of your colleagues and in the eyes of your subordinates — you’re now … the boss.

Things have changed. And there’s no going back.

This change in perception — that you’re now in a position of power — affects a ton of tiny details in your interactions with others.

For instance, Mandy, your direct, isn’t going to think “Oh, I can approach my manager with this problem, and I’m sure he’ll understand and fix it.” Instead, she now goes through a level of indirection, and she thinks: “Oh, I should approach my manager with this. But what if he thinks I’m too whiny? What if he shoots down my problem? What if he doesn’t take me seriously? My manager’s too busy anyway, I don’t want to seem like I’m causing trouble, maybe I should table it for later.”

And this is for problems that Mandy has. Imagine if it’s a problem Mandy notices elsewhere in the organisation. Imagine if Mandy was asked to give you feedback, or desires to give suggestions on something that you thought was already doing well before. Imagine if Mandy is to give you criticism. Or a gajillion other interactions that you’ll have with her over the next year’s worth of one-on-ones.

This sort of challenge is something that no manager can escape. The positional power barrier affects all of us, all the time, in nearly every interaction with our subordinates. Even unspoken interactions are included — I was once incredibly demotivated by a failed customer deployment I worked on for two months, until my HR exec pulled me aside after two weeks of moping and told me that I was affecting everyone’s morale. This was a person who I considered a close friend — that she took two weeks before deciding to bring it up to me is a testament to how large the positional power barrier might be.

So what’s the solution here? What can you do to reduce the positional power barrier?

Understanding the Barrier

The first step to a solution is to understand why this barrier exists.

The positional power barrier exists because of asymmetric negative outcomes between manager and subordinate. That’s simply a really complicated way to say: “if a given interaction goes badly, the subordinate has more to lose than the manager.”

This is quite intuitive to understand! Imagine going to your boss with criticism. While your boss may pay lip-service to the idea of receiving criticism, you won’t know if he or she will take your criticism in a positive manner until you’ve actually tried. And if things go badly, you have more to lose than your boss. This makes you really, really careful when it comes to giving criticism, or feedback, or anything that might result in blowback.

The solution here is for the boss to make it incredibly clear what’s acceptable and wanted. This is easier said than done! Even if you repeatedly tell your subordinates that you want and like criticism, they wouldn’t believe you until they see it in action.

In simple terms, when it comes to the positional power barrier, actions speak much louder than words. A single negative reaction to criticism will overpower a year’s worth of assurances that you desire criticism and feedback. You may find that you’ve accidentally silenced your entire team with even the smallest of actions.

But it’s in this insight — that action speaks much louder than words — that we find the seed of a solution to the positional power barrier.

Reducing the Positional Power Barrier

If action speaks louder than words, then the only way to reduce the positional power barrier is to take repeated actions showing acceptance of criticism, performed consistently over a long period of time.

We can make this more general of course: if you want to see more of a particular behaviour (e.g. giving feedback, describing concerns, expressing observations of organisational dynamics) act on these behaviour in a positive manner, and do so repeatedly!

This is, of course, one of those things that is simple to say, but is incredibly unnatural and weird to perform in practice.

In the beginning, your subordinates aren’t likely to give you the sorts of substantive constructive feedback or criticism that you want. Heck, even asking for suggestions will feel like squeezing water out of a rock. When a subordinate eventually does attempt to give you criticism (or when one of them eventually makes a tentative suggestion), these criticisms and suggestions would be small, and — more importantly for them — safe.

This means that you’ll need to perform incredibly disproportionate acts of praise and encouragement over very tiny pieces of criticism or suggestions. If someone says to you “could we have more money for snacks in the office?”, assuming that this is something within your power, you should make it happen, and then effusively praise the suggestion: “James had a good idea the other day, he said that we should increase the budget for snacks in the office, and I’m very grateful he pointed this out because we haven’t changed that budget for years!”

And then find all sorts of ways to emphasise this, like, while munching on an apple a few days later, go: “Nicely done, James, these apples are great!”, or perhaps write him a handwritten note thanking him, and so on.

Of course, I’m not saying you should do this in an insincere manner. There’s a fine line between going out of your comfort zone to highlight the behaviours you want to encourage, and doing these things in an over-the-top, insincere way. You should pick the actions that feel sincere to you. But I am pointing out that many of these actions would feel unnatural, and would take extra effort, but that you should stick to them because it’s worth it to try and reduce the positional power barrier whenever and wherever possible.

This idea of actively encouraging the behaviours you want is something that appears in many places in the management and leadership literature. Take, for instance, this passage from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor:

The difficulty in soliciting criticism from the team I worked with in Japan, however, was enduring the silence. I’ll never forget my first meeting with the AdSense team in Tokyo. My plan was to hold regular meetings with them to ask for suggestions, concerns, improvements. My previous experience in such meetings in other countries had been that if I asked a question like, “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make your lives better?” and then counted to six in my head, somebody would say something. I counted to ten. Crickets. I asked a different way. Still, crickets. Finally, I told them a story about Toyota that I’d learned in business school. Wanting to combat the cultural taboos against criticizing management, Toyota’s leaders painted a big red square on the assembly line floor. New employees had to stand in it at the end of their first week, and they were not allowed to leave until they had criticized at least three things on the line. The continual improvement this practice spawned was part of Toyota’s success. I asked my team what they thought: did we need a red box? “They laughed, and, fearing I might just paint a red box somewhere, somebody opened up just a tiny bit. It wasn’t much, frankly—a complaint about the tea in the office—but I rewarded the candor handsomely. I thanked the person publicly, I sent a handwritten note, I approved funds to make sure there was better tea, and I made sure everyone knew that there was better tea now because somebody had complained about it in the meeting. Later, more substantive issues got raised.

To close, I’d like to add that encouraging behaviours you want to see can lead you down some positively delightful paths. If you constantly rack your brains for new ways to reward and positively reinforce behaviours you’d like, you should find increasingly creative and genuine ways to show your appreciation to your subordinates.

I think it’s interesting in a very pleasant way to think about how far you can go to encourage these behaviours, and then to have these actions form a core part of your toolbox for encouraging feedback in whatever team you lead.

Best of luck! The positional power barrier is real, and it exists, but recognising it is half the battle. The other half is to find ways to actively reduce it, in order to get the feedback and criticism that’s necessary for your team to improve.