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Co-powering: A Smart Communication Strategy for a New Business Age

Ana Polanco

20140628_181900Five years ago, I had the honor of receiving training from the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Rockwood is a community of coaches and consultants who support leaders who are searching for purpose, facing burnout, in transition or looking to take a leap to more authentic forms of leadership. When I came to Rockwood I was mostly feeling unfulfilled and burned out. The social justice movement that I was a part of was struggling to evolve.

Up until that point in my professional career, most of the training and experience I had received and utilized was in a hierarchical setting. You had to respect the hierarchy and the traditional rules of the labor movement in order to advance. You had to pay your dues to advance and at the same time sink or swim learning the work. This was considered the norm.

This often left young leaders and people of color disillusioned. A wave of Generation X and Y leaders ultimately left the labor movement because of this hierarchical system to find or create other forms of leadership and engagement that offered other opportunities to advance worker rights.

As I look back at the changes in the economy, technology and needs of the workforce, I realize we are living in a system that doesn’t match today’s worker values or society’s demands. Workers and leaders were thinking about power in different terms. Instead of building power for myself and then making space for the next person, I wanted to bring that person with me. I wanted us to discover how to power up and energize our work together.

While I was at Rockwood, I came across “co-powerment,” a term coined by Author and Leadership Coach Roberto Vargas.  Roberto defines co-powerment as “communication that seeks to lift the confidence, energy and agency of another person, self, and the relationship. It is lifting the power of self and others.”

Co-powerment has been instrumental in the way I look at the world and how I lead and build partnerships. In politics I was trained to demonstrate power over others as part of our method of moving companies to pay attention to the needs of workers.  Power over others can move your allies and adversaries in your favor but it has limits.  In politics you never know when power will shift. At some point the people you are looking to relate to may stop responding to that way of communication.

Power with has unlimited possibilities. It gives you the opportunity to think through how to grow your collaboration with the people around you. It is focused on getting to know each other, recognizing the non-verbal communications that make up close to 70% of what we communicate to the people around us. It also creates realistic expectations for the work.

If you are going to create or revive a partnership with someone, you have to consider your values. Things much deeper than your position on the affordable health care act. What is the underlying value below that policy and why do you hold it?

Asking those types of questions helps us to see each other as human beings and removes assumptions that we all think and feel the same way about our work.

There are three keys to co-powering that I have found very useful:

Ask Questions about the Obvious. When you ask questions about the things you have in common with someone you can deepen the relationship to a new level. For example: while my friend and I may both like chocolate, we may like it for different reasons and enjoy it in different ways. Understanding those details helps deepen our friendship. The same is true in business. If two department heads favor having staff input on a department restructure, the reasons may be radically different. Getting to know why we are alike in outcome can help us strengthen our values, purpose and the processes we use to create change.

Be Brutally Honest with Kindness. I can’t tell you how many times I have told colleagues or watched colleagues tell me they were going to fulfill their share of project when you really weren’t on board. Not being on board can mean many things. It’s important to get specific about the details and help your coworkers understand the challenges. Sometimes we lie thinking that it will save the relationship with another manager to avoid dealing with the problem at hand. The challenge with lying about the problem, is that over time it festers and will ultimately show up in the work and how your teams treat each other. It’s better to find a kind way of being clear about the challenge ahead. Honesty helps teams problem solve and results in a better work product.

Be Open to Other People’s Ideas. Co-powering is all about discovering new ways of improving the outcome. It’s also about letting everyone shine. When a team comes together to solve a problem, it makes for better results. When we win everyone wins, but when we fail, everyone is looking to blame one person or team. The truth is that if we fail, we all fail, because we all contributed to the work. Find ways of making space for new solutions to old problems. The results will be a stronger and more effective outcome to your work. You’ll also have gained the respect of your colleagues and their staff.

Your turn: In the comment section below, share how you co-power with others.

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