In this article I share my own journey dealing with power trippers and I give you some practical tips for dealing with the power trippers in your work life.
There is a theme in my coaching work this week – power trippers! It seems that a number of my clients, all Vice Presidents of respectable companies, are dealing with a power tripper in the executive ranks. A power tripper is someone who uses their power to intimidate and to create a win/lose dynamic with them coming out as the winner every time. They use their power overtly or covertly to undermine other people’s confidence or work, and they do it in both subtle and not so subtle ways. They are usually a “favorite” with one of the top executives because part of their manipulation is making sure they are in the good books of the big wigs. That way, when someone accuses them of misbehaving they can bat their eyelashes innocently and say, “who me?”
Have you ever been caught in a dynamic with a power tripper? I have and it sucked. I spun between uber confidence that I was in the right, and fear that they were going to take me down. All of the hairs on my body were on high alert when I was around this person and I found myself building my own arsenal of dirty tricks so I could strike back if hit. At the low point, I lost my mojo. Because of the physical and mental stress of the interaction, I could not access the powerful part of me and my natural strengths. I stopped being able to connect with the individual as a person, and I could no longer articulate my point of view in a calm articulate way. This was a double whammy for me – I felt like a bad person, and I lost my ability to think and stay clear. But worse, I felt like they had won.
Thankfully I used this experience as a point of reflection in my life, and I studied the phenomenon for the benefit of my clients. Here are some of the lessons I learned.
On a personal level, dealing with power trippers is challenging. Rather than deal with them, the first stage of my “recovery” was to avoid them. I learned how to spot power trippers with a super powered radar, and when I did spot one I avoided them like the plague. After a few years of this, I realized that I needed to strengthen my ability to deal with power trippers. Avoiding them was only serving me to a point, but it was creating a bigger risk for me – not realizing my full potential.
After years of avoidance I realized that power trippers could not be avoided if I wanted to be a leadership development coach and consultant. In my work each time I deal with an executive there is a risk they are a power tripper. Each time I sign on with a new organization I typically have to deal with at least one. So, if I kept on the path of avoidance it would mean playing small in my career. I needed some new strategies. I needed to figure out how to deal with power trippers and stay safe and confident. I needed to find ways that I could deal with them without fearing they would take me down.
For me, my ability to deal with power trippers was directly related to the extent that I connected with my inner strength as a person, and dealt with my own issues. If I engaged in activities like meditation, yoga, and being with loved ones, I felt strong. I could feel that part of myself that no one can ever take down – my spirit, my inner gold, my resolve. Step one was finding this part of myself. Step two was accessing it when I was engaging with power trippers.
With some practice I learned to tap into this part of me in moments when I needed it. When I met power trippers I would ask myself: “I wonder why this person is behaving like this? I wonder if they do this with every one? I wonder how we can get our relationship to be one of equal partners? What would it take? Is this person interested? Am I interested? What boundaries would need to be in place?” Simply asking myself these questions made me feel more powerful and like a partner. It was much better than, “oh no, they might take me down!” I reminded myself of my strength and the reality that even if I got taken down temporarily I would recover. I had the strength within myself to recover. I was resourceful.
What didn’t work for me long term was projecting confidence I didn’t have. It definitely helped temporarily, but the problem with doing this was it wouldn’t last. When the power tripper started to poke me I felt like they could see through me and sense my insecurity. If I projected false confidence for too long there was danger of going down a slippery slope and sliding fast. If they said or did something that triggered my insecurity my false bravado would crumble and I felt defeated. So, to be really get good at dealing with power trippers I needed to look at my fears and what I was scared they “would take from me” and I had to find the powerful part of myself that no one can ever take down no matter how hard they try.
Now, I can confidently (genuinely confidently) say that power trippers can’t take me down. So, they don’t have much power. From this place I can make a choice – will I partner with this person or not? There is always a choice. As soon as the victim mentality comes in problems occur.
While on my own personal journey I also studied this phenomenon as part of my graduate studies. Here are some other things I have learned about power trippers.
What is a power trip?
- Every time you take part in a manipulative power tripping relationship, you unwittingly collude with the person that seeks to control you. As soon as you cave in to someone’s wishes that have you compromise yourself a toxic cycle begins.
- Manipulation according to Webster’s is to “control or play upon by artful, unfair or insidious means, especially to one’s own advantage; to change by artful or unfair means to serve one’s purposes.” It is generally a negative experience that reinforces dependency, helplessness and victimization. It constricts relationships from growing in a healthy, balanced way. As long as the manipulation persists, the manipulator grows stronger and often becomes bolder in its tactics.
- Manipulation is different from – and should not be confused with – legitimate, direct influence. Healthy, appropriate influence is typically shaped by rewards and is framed with candid open authentic communication. Strategies of threat are not used. The agenda of the influence is clear and discussed up front with those affected.
- In contrast, manipulation is veiled in devious communication. Agendas are frequently hidden and purposely disguised. Intimidation and coercion are the tactics typically used. Some manipulators are fully conscious and intentional about their actions. They are skilled at coercion and control and get a rush from their ability to bend other people’s will to suit their needs. Other manipulators may operate from an unconscious place. They act out of insecurity, fear or other emotions.
Who is most susceptible to power trippers?
- People are most susceptible to power trippers when they are new in a role, in a stretch assignment, or there is something going on in the environment that has them second guess their abilities.
- People who are susceptible to manipulation tend to also have people pleasing habits. They want approval from others and their self-esteem is often tied up in being liked. Having an excessive sense of responsibility for the well being of others is the lever that manipulators use to invoke guilt and control behavior.
- In addition, people who are susceptible to manipulation tend to fear negative emotions such as anger or hostility. Rather than face the anger, these people conjure up scenarios in their head of the manipulator’s anger. They take action to avoid this anger even though it hasn’t already occurred. Imagine a volatile CEO or leader with a reputation for “outbursts.” This automatically puts people on edge and controls behavior in a destructive way. People do or do not take action for fear of the leader’s reaction.
What you can do if you find yourself in a power tripping relationship?
- Remove yourself from the situation – The best and healthiest thing to do may be to leave the situation all together. If the relationship is beyond repair and/or you need time to regain your confidence and composure, removing yourself from the situation will help you to regain your perspective and self-respect.
- Play for time – To break the pattern, do not immediately respond to the manipulator’s tactics. Build in time to think about your options. This will give you back a sense of control and help you to avoid knee jerk reactions to manipulative cohersion. You may say something like: “This is an important issue and I need some time to think about it. I will get back to you.”
- Desensitize yourself to anxiety – Often manipulation works because of a fear of anger and negative emotions. This leads to heightened anxiety and often, emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning is when people confuse their negative emotions with the thought that something bad is actually happening. The stronger the feeling, the bigger impact these emotions have on your thought process. If you can recognize negative feelings and lower your urgency to respond to them, you will increase your sense of control and decrease your susceptibability to manipulation.
- Talk to someone – If you are in a manipulative relationship, you are likely spending a lot of time thinking about the situation and it is not uncommon for circular fear-based thought patterns to occur. To break this pattern, talk to a trusted person that can help you gain some perspective and regain some control.
- Create a win-in partnership – In order for this tactic to work, you often have to use some of the other tactics first such as playing for time, desensitiving yourself and getting some support. Once you have done this, there is a possibility you can redefine the relationship on healthy terms. Be clear on your own needs and where you are willing to compromise and set boundaries in the relationship. This will only work if the relationship is newly defined and there is a genuine desire to understand each other and for both parties, to improve things.
“Who’s Pulling Your Strings” by Harrier Braiker (McGraw Hill, 2004).