It’s easy to feel trapped and powerless at work when things are changing all around you and there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen next. Especially when you’re senior enough to lead a team but not so senior that you run things.

There’s the pressure from top management to produce more results while your overworked team is asking for time off. And the stress of having to back policies from above when you’re not entirely in agreement and having to fudge your answer when juniors ask you “why”.

It’s tough when you’re in the middle, feeling squeezed by pressure from all sides.

But while you don’t yet have the power to dictate policy, you’re also not as powerless as you may feel.

I learned this from Dr. Kevin Corley, professor of management at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business. He spoke to the Leadership Academy that I co-lead at ASU about power, influence and how to “manage up” at work.

Here are my three biggest takeaways from his talk. I hope it helps you when you’d like to change what’s happening at work but feel powerless to do anything about it.

  • Reach out to others
  • Reclaim your power
  • Use your influence

Reach out to others

Feeling powerless is often accompanied by feeling isolated and on your own. Like a cog in a machine without a say in what happens. But as the saying goes, there’s strength in numbers.

So in those dark moments when it feels like you can’t effect change no matter what you do, Corley suggest you ask yourself two questions.

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First, what is my goal, the thing I’m trying to achieve? Perhaps it’s getting more resources to support your woefully understaffed team. Or maybe it’s permission to go about your work in a different way, whether that’s working remotely a few days a week or to streamline an outdated process.

Once you’ve identified your goal, the second question is, “who can help?” Here, it’s important to think broadly. Who are the decision-makers? And who are the people who influence them? You might even start with peers who may be facing the same struggles as you to brainstorm possible solutions.

Remember, you don’t have to go it alone. And it helps to know that you’re not the only one facing the challenging situation.

Which leads to the next way.

Recognize your power

According to Corley, power is the “capacity or potential to influence others”. It’s not an ability or something that you have to acquire or a trait that only some people have. In fact, we all have the potential to influence others. When you feel powerless, it’s most likely because you haven’t recognized the power you have.

The source of your power is from dependencies. If someone depends on you, then you have the potential to influence them. For example, if your manager relies on you and your team to produce certain analyses or develop relationships with external clients, that dependency gives you the capacity to influence him or her.

And often, there are linkages between people and groups so that people depend on each other. These interdependencies also lead to power. For example, if you and your team need to collaborate with colleagues in another part of the organization to produce the outcomes expected from you, then you each have the potential to influence each other.

As long as you’re operating in a system with other people, those (inter)dependencies will give you power. So when you feel powerless, remind yourself to take a moment to recognize where your power comes from so you can tap into it and reclaim it. And the best way to exercise your power is to influence others.

Which brings us to the third way.

Use your influence

According to Corley, “the most effective way to influence others is for them to see your position as a means for satisfying their needs.”

In other words, get your boss, colleagues and senior managers to see that your interests are aligned, that you can help them do what they want to do.

This starts with thinking at a strategic level. Reframe and expand the way you think about what you do into a broader context. How does the work you do fit into the system? And how can you influence the system?

For example, let’s say you’re leading a sales initiative that’s making a push into a new client base, but you’re losing business because the powerful legal department insists on more stringent documentation than your competitors. Thinking of yourself as a single team leader up against the highly respected legal department will leave you feeling powerless to make any change.

But when you think about your role from a strategic perspective, it’s easier to see the possibilities for influencing. 

By reframing your work as part of the company’s strategic push to broaden its client base opens up possibilities for influencing outcomes. It could be to get your boss to advocate for a fresh look at what the documentation could be for this new market. Or partnering with your colleagues in the legal department to find a way to help the company to be successful in the new market while also protecting its legal position.

And this gives you an opening to influence what happens next.

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But what if it feels impossible to influence your senior managers so you don’t even want to try?

What surprised me most was when Prof. Corley observed that it’s easier to influence upwards than downwards.

Influencing down generally involves you trying to get a junior person to do something they don’t really want to do. That’s challenging.

But when you’re influencing up in the context of your work, you’re far more likely to be in alignment with what senior managers want to do. You might have to do some thinking about how to frame it that way, but there’s bound to be an alignment of goals and interests. And that makes it easier to succeed in influencing your bosses.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that power comes from position alone

Simply because someone is at the top of an organization doesn’t mean they can have their way all the time. There are always stakeholders and constituencies to consider. So, even people who can order others to do things are better off not using that “command and control” mechanism too often. It wears thin and people don’t like being ordered around.

In fact, the very best leaders don’t swan around telling people what to do. They hire talented people, establish the vision and values, and foster an environment where team members can perform at their best.

In other words, knowing how to influence people is useful no matter how senior or junior you are.

It’s up to you to tap into your power and influence

So when you feel powerless at work, take a moment to step back and reflect on the full breadth of your sphere of influence. Focus on the power you do have and find a way to exercise it gracefully.

And to help you reframe your situation and focus on what you can do, remember to:

  • Reach out to others – get clear on what you want and figure out who can help.
  • Recognize your power – power is the capacity or potential to influence others and it’s something we all have. You just have to recognize it.
  • Use your influence – the most effective way to influence others is for them to see your position as a means for satisfying their needs.

So, which of these ways will most help you when you feel powerless at work?

Leave a comment and let me know.