“I have a higher position than you, so I have more authority over the choices you make.”
“You have no right to do this, because I oversee everything you do.”
“You should do this instead of that, because I have the power to say so.”
Although they may be said differently depending on the context, in general, these types of words and phrases would haunt me day and night as I explore something strange yet familiar. Something simply called reality.
In numerous office-themed films and TV shows, we as an audience have been exposed to the trope of the main character first being treated like garbage by their boss and then progressing to become one of the most respected, reputable figures at work in the end.
While this particular trope may be a common occurrence for many in real life, it’s just not always the case. There will almost always be exceptions where those who are in a lower position stay at that level, and they can never excel beyond that. These individuals will never achieve a point where, despite their efforts and dedication, their potential is 100% recognized by their boss, leader, or manager. All it boils down to is a suppression of one’s skills and talents and the false accreditation of another person — perhaps someone with more power — for their “accomplishments.”
Speaking of the word “power,” does it ever surprise you how many people in the world deserve more power but cannot have it? Think about the Syrian refugees who were forced to flee their own country despite being innocent. Think about the prisoners who are wrongly convicted but have no right to free themselves from jail unless they go through the court. Think about the people in underserved communities who do not have equal access to things like education and healthcare, mainly because they are not given enough support.
Power is usually something that could either make or break it for an individual. It could raise you up in things like status, wealth, and popularity, or it could completely tear you down into pieces.
Power plays a role in various aspects of life, not just work (the typical boss-to-employee relationship). Power differentials could be observed in classes (teacher-to-student), personality (extrovert-to-introvert), student organizations (president-to-assistant), and even gender (male-to-female), to name a few.
As an introverted woman of color who has acquired numerous leadership roles in student organizations, I think it is safe to say that there were definitely moments when the people I worked with have doubted my capability to be a leader at least once.
Was I surprised about that? No. Did I continue my leadership? Yes.
The truth is, even though I may not be perfect at what I’m doing, what matters is that I care about what I’m doing, and that I am constantly trying every day to improve myself step by step.
Plus, I chose to take these roles because I had the skills and qualities to help start me off, and I was confident I could make an impact with them.
So whenever the authority of my role was challenged by that of the one above me (i.e., the president, main leader, etc.), or whenever they tried to control what I had jurisdiction over, I have gradually learned to stand my ground when necessary and create boundaries on what they should and should not be in charge of. When it comes to my specific role, I may have more expertise in a certain skill that even the one with a higher-up role may not have had enough experience in (i.e., social media, finances, etc.).
This phenomenon is connected to what is known as “synergy,” which is the combined power of a group of people “when they are working together that is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately.” In other words, when people work in a team with a shared, common goal, they can accomplish more promising results as opposed to working individually and in separate directions. Furthermore, everyone has something unique to bring to the table. Thus, it is necessary to empower people in a team to contribute with ease, no matter what level of power they own in the team. By enabling this supportive and encouraging environment, the members of the team are given the opportunity to explore their full potential and experience more success than ever before.
With that, it is crucial that people of significant power understand, not underestimate, the abilities of those below them. Just because someone is typically quiet does not immediately entail they are useless. Just because someone is careful about their actions doesn’t indicate they will never take the initiative. And just because someone is kind doesn’t mean they will let others walk all over them.
Take my high school experience, for example. Throughout my entire high school career, everyone knew me as the quiet student who barely said anything unless I was asked to or encouraged to. Because of this, many of them doubted that this personality of mine would take me anywhere in life. However, I proved them wrong when I graduated at the top of my class (Valedictorian). Not only was I academically competent, but I was also fearless enough to deliver a 15-minute Valedictorian speech in front of an entire audience at graduation.
So, needless to say, I know my own worth. I won’t let power be the one thing that keeps me from uncovering my full potential. If there are aspects about myself or my work I could improve, I would be more than willing to work on them. All I ask is that there is good reasoning behind this need for improvement, not just power or pride itself.
For those of you who may be struggling with this power differential situation, I encourage you to also be aware of what you’re capable of. Don’t let anyone’s status bring you down. And there’s no need to follow any TV or movie trope, whether it’s the negative (always being treated like trash by your boss) or the positive (developing into a well-respected employee). You are yourself, you are worth it, and you are writing your own story as you go through life.
You are powerful.