Why it’s tempting to feel powerless

by Bruce Kasanoff on March 4, 2013

You know the feeling… you’re stuck in a bad place. Maybe your boss is taking credit for your work, maybe your relationship is in a rut, perhaps the business you started three years ago is going… nowhere.

If only you had more power, more control.

Flashback to Philadelphia, with winter bearing down. It’s the last day of my first semester as a graduate student at Wharton, a long time ago. My eccentric – some said crazy – professor is asking us for feedback.

Kenwyn Smith drove many of my peers crazy. He was teaching organizational behavior, and once suspended his topic for the day to focus on why we let a female student who was late for class enter and sit down without anyone objecting. He made her sit on the floor until we decided what to do, but she ran out crying before the discussion came to a conclusion.

I liked Professor Smith. He made us think about why we did things, especially how we behaved in groups.

Earlier in the semester, Smith took us on a weekend retreat, to an old summer camp. We engaged in a simulation, in which Smith would set some rules, we’d live with them for a while, and then he’d change the rules again.

So on that last day of class, I raised my hand and told him I thought he’d gone too long between each rule change. He started jumping up and done and screaming, “Yes, yes!” (I was thinking: what? what?)

Fortunately, he explained.

People in groups always feel stuck in the middle. They feel powerless to change things. Even senior executives and CEOs often feel this way.

You might think your CEO has all the power, but she or he might feel trapped between employees, the Board, investors and perhaps regulators.

Smith asked me, “Why didn’t you try to change the rules?”

I replied, “Because you had that role.”

But he pointed out that he’d never said he was the only one who could change the rules, and even if he had, I could have pushed back at any time. But I didn’t.

Of all the things I’ve learned, that lesson has stuck with me the longest.

You have a much greater ability to change your circumstances than it seems. You don’t have to wait for the rules to change; if you don’t like them, change them. Change everything. Don’t wait for someone else to change.

You might also like: Do you give a damn?

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