Working With Powerful People

Manage Your Relationships for Maximum Satisfaction

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Being able to work well with powerful people is a critical work skill. If you can do it, you'll shine as a potential future star. If you can't, your career will quickly stall.

To be good at working with powerful people, you need to recognize that, although you may be in a subordinate role, you can, and must, take action.

When you shift the burden of responsibility onto yourself, you gain the sense of control you need to make these relationships work.

Treating Powerful People as Stakeholders

Having got yourself into the right mindset, the first step is to identify who these people are in your work life, what they want and need from you, and what you want and need from them. In other words, you need to apply the tools and techniques of formal stakeholder management that are most often associated with project management.

The following steps are explained in more detail (in a project management context) in our articles on stakeholder analysis and stakeholder management :

Step 1: Identify Your Powerful Stakeholders

Identify the people in your life who have or could have an influence over your work and your career (both positive and negative). Concentrate on those inside your organization, but include any key external individuals too, such as the account manager in a long-term customer organization.

Step 2: Map Your Stakeholders

Mark these people on a Power/Interest Grid (download our free template), treating the "Low Power" boxes as "Lower Power" in this situation.

Step 3: Understand Your Stakeholders

Use the following questions to understand your relationship with the people in the "Manage closely", "Keep satisfied" and "Keep informed" quadrants:

  • What are their key work interests and issues?
  • What do they want from you?
  • What do you have to offer them?
  • What can they do for you by using their power?
  • Is their current attitude towards you supportive, neutral, critical or do they even block your efforts?
  • Do you need this attitude to change?

Step 4: Identify Actions

Finally, identify what you need to do to develop (if necessary) and maintain a relationship with them that will satisfy both your and their needs. Consider the following techniques and strategies, particularly for those in the "Manage closely" group:

Try Reverse Recognition:

You know how you respond to recognition and how your team members and peers are motivated by appreciative remarks? Do the same for people in power.

  • Compliment them on a job well done.
  • Say thanks when you are given extra support.
  • Acknowledge when they go to bat for you.
  • But don't confuse this with sucking-up. To be effective, praise and recognition must be sincere and delivered in an adult, genuine way. And don't overdo it!

Develop a Relationship:

Establish a strong relationship with your boss and the people senior to him or her. Build trust and establish rapport through the following types of activities:

  • Interact on a daily basis, even if it is just to say "hi".
  • Get to know them as people – what do they like, dislike, do well, etc.
  • Learn about their family (don't push beyond what your boss is comfortable revealing to you.)
  • Remember special dates like his/her birthday or anniversary date with the company.
  • Consider asking them to go for lunch or coffee, but not to talk about work.

Tip:

Careful – people from different cultures will look upon this in different ways. In some cultures this may be normal. In others, this could be seen as over-familiar, "toadying," or even weird!

Communicate Confidently and Assertively:

When you know what you want and are able to demand it in ways that respect the rights of others, you quite often get what you need. To do this takes self-confidence and a strong belief in the value of yourself and others.

  • Approach powerful people directly and confidently – stand up for yourself in a positive, adult, assertive manner (see our article on assertiveness).
  • Don't take negative comments or setbacks personally.
  • Continue to work on your self-confidence – the better you feel about yourself the stronger you will carry yourself in the face of powerful people.

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Work Smart:

Powerful people in business tend to strongly appreciate effectiveness and productivity. Learn to work in ways that are designed for optimum results.

  • If you can avoid it, never say "can't" – powerful people are used to getting what they want so make sure you deliver, even if what you submit is a renegotiated deliverable. Again, see our article on "dealing With Unreasonable Requests " for tips.
  • Respect their time – powerful people are in demand therefore you need to present your ideas quickly and succinctly.
  • Learn to read between the lines – powerful people often don't explain things fully – they expect you to "get" what they are saying. Find a source of information that will bring up to speed as needed.
  • Deliver results – when you are given a directive, get it done.
  • Work independently when appropriate.
  • Use the Job Analysis tool to make sure that you're working towards the correct objectives.
  • Work as productively and intelligently as you can (see our time
    management
    articles).
  • Prioritize your tasks intelligently, and make sure you agree this prioritization with your boss.

"Manage" Upward:

Everyone above you on the organization chart is potentially someone who can affect your career. The strategies you use to "manage" your direct boss should be used with his or her superiors as well. The more contacts you make, the more sources of potential support you have for achieving your career goals.

This is where techniques like stakeholder analysis and stakeholder management can be incredibly powerful (although be careful to respect correct channels of communication when you do this.)

Tip 1:

OK, you can't actually directly manage upwards (which is why we've put the word in quotes, above.) But what you can do is manage your own approach, which is what we're talking about here!

Tip 2:

These tips will work in the majority of cases. However you may have the misfortune to run into a Machiavellian or bullying boss, and this needs different strategies. Listen to our interview on workplace bullying to learn more about this.

Key Points

To have a successful career you need to deal effectively with powerful people. The most important powerful person in your career is your direct boss. With the right management, you can develop a great relationship with your boss and find the support and resources you need to reach your career goals.

By managing the relationship, you recognize and appreciate your differing needs and then work to find ways to adapt. Start today to find ways of communicating with your boss, and begin to experience more work satisfaction and better results.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (8)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi Celia

    A warm welcome to the forums and thanks for sharing your positive experience with us. Doing something positive to improve a working relationship, as you did, is worth so much! Not only do we have less stress and tension, but we don't dread going to work anymore - and seeing that we spend a lot of time at work, dreading going there is awful.

    Please let me know if you need any help around here - I'll be only too glad to assist. We look forward to seeing you on the forums often!

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • Over a month ago enthusiastic60 wrote
    The boss's secretary was an extremely powerful person around which the whole Centre revolved. However, she continually ran he and I down to others and I found myself taking regular sickies to get through the tension in the office. One day, I found myself defending him and telling her of his wonderful academic achievements (I was in his graduation year) and his family honour. I also mention that he had complimented her during a private conversation I had had with him. I realised she had felt left out of our long standing friendship and so began to consult and inform her about the project I was involved in which ended up in a opening the channels of communication and the back stabbing stopped. What is expressed on mindtools is common sense but we all so frequently need it spelt out and broken down into digestible pieces.

    Thanks

    Celia
  • Over a month ago ladyb wrote
    Great article... it reminds me of a time when I had a boor for a boss and was so frustrated but I knew I had to make the best of the situation - it was my first job out of univeristy and I was determined to not be a quitter.

    After a few good chats with friends and some coworkers I felt I could trust, I asked for a meeting to discuss expectations and how I could meet myobjectives effectively. I did lots of listening and then asserted what it was I needed to do a good job. What I discovered in the meeting was that my boss was under an enormous amount of pressure from her boss and that was affecting her ability to be a good manager to her own people. With a renewed appreciation for what each of us needed and was going through, we were able to work out a plan where I got the support and encouragement I needed that helped me do a better job and this helped her to do a better job for her boss.

    It was very nervewracking to ask my boss for a meeting like this but the result was incredible. With a little bit of guts and the right intentions, managing the relationship with a boss is relatively straightforward, unfortunately most people don't know to do it or don't think they can do it.

    I talk to my own employees very frankly about this and tell them that they need to come to me if I start falling down on my job in terms of being a good boss. I think they take it to heart and I've had some really great discussions come from it. It is very true that each of us is responsible for the success we have at work and if something's not working, it's ultimately up to us to fix it.

    Brynn
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