Over the last few weeks I have had time to ponder on the positional power I have but more on the authoritative power within the organisation I work in. My role within the ‘state’ whereby I am in the public sector gives me an authority that I don’t always feel. But it is a formal power. I carry out statutory functions. I can impose the will of the state and that is considerable, even when I’m not feeling it and having a bad day.
Often, I surprise myself when someone asks me a question about work stuff and I know the answer as if I expect not to know. But as I have slowly become the most experienced person in my team, through others moving on or being promoted, it is increasingly a place I find myself in.
While I’ve never been terribly interested in ‘management’ or ‘leadership’, I have definitely gained, within the workplace, a different kind of experiential authority. For good or for ill, I’m not backwards in raising my voice and challenging internally – sometimes loudly especially when I feel I have ‘right’ and ‘natural justice’ on my side.
This means people perceive me, perhaps as more confident than I am. This week, I was working closely with one of the newer recruits. I was explaining how anxious the work can make me feel and she responded by telling me how confident I seemed and she’d never considered that I’d ever had doubts about my own competence. It was nice, of course, but made me realise how we can take for granted the informal organisational power structures by focusing of positional power.
By virtue of just having worked in one organisation for 6 years, I know the names of a lot of people. I know who to contact to ask about things. I remember working with X when we did a project four years ago and Y when we met at a leaving party. You make these contacts and it isn’t hard to grow them once they are there.
The hardest thing about new jobs is understanding new organisations and who to ask. The hard power is clear but the lines of softer influence are more difficult to draw and often rely on relationships, sometimes fleeting assumptions and prejudices, made with others within the organisation. I’ve also been around long enough that colleagues around me have been promoted high and far so I don’t have some of those imposed barriers of communication in place where others may consider hierarchical power structures. My manager’s manager used to be my direct manager and we always got on well so I don’t have the ‘fear’ of contacting her directly or calling for a chat (or to raise a concern) that newer people who have only seen her as a senior leader, might have.
A couple of months ago I was involved in a project and sat in on a conference call with about 10 other people and (very unusually for me) barely said a word because I didn’t really have much to add.
A couple of hours later, I was meeting my manager who said they had spoken to someone on the call with me and told her how impressed they were with my intelligence. Which is nice. But there was no possible way (and I’m not saying this through false modesty) that anyone could have determined ‘intelligence’ from my contribution to that call. It was the soft reputational stuff from a conversation I think I’d had with one of the other people on the call a few months previously – where I’d just said some pretty obvious things but seem to have impressed the person I was speaking to. The reason I’m writing this is not arrogance but to display how these reputations follow, even with little evidence.
These conversations and whispers lead to a different kind of power. It’s not as well-structured or as lucrative but the influence which flows can be enormous.
I’ve found it useful to draw out these networks of influence and to make sure I’m both aware of them and mindful of them. It potentially puts me in a position of privilege compared to some of my colleagues and I can use my role to encourage or to deflate colleagues.
I hope I always encourage and support. Because while structures can seem inscrutable, both from the outside and the inside, one can help others see the path through and it’s about a responsibility to those who rely on the proper functioning of public services to protect as well as impose.
The importance of experienced non-managers is sometimes glossed over but we are the people that provide the advice and support for those who will become the high-flyers and the managers of tomorrow. A distorted team which does not value experience and only recognises formal status, risks undermining the softer organisational learning that can come only with time. Alienate your noisy practitioners and you will leave your new employees with a poor initial experience in which to grow.
This stuff isn’t always learnt but we thrive on the shoulders of others who have learnt before us and in order to build up and learn about the soft power within organisations, we need to give people time to make and learn the connections needed.
Power comes from many sides. An awareness of power and particularly one’s own power is crucial. I am still trying to come to terms with this but as I hurtle into another work week, I’m resolved to ensure the authority I have is used for the positive and to make me better at my job to serve the public but also a better support to those who might not have the same links and organisational knowledge which has developed over years.