Understanding Your Power In The Workplace

This post is inspired by and dedicated to a good friend of mine who approached me raising the issue of his lack of power, authority, and influence in the work environment. I hear these types of questions frequently, and every time they arise, it makes me smile a little because there’s so much potential they’ve yet to discover & acknowledge.

Power isn’t something you hold or keep, it’s something you create. In order to own your power, you must build it yourself, and continue building it every day. Here’s a personal story for you, followed by the body of the post to guide you to understanding your power within the office environment.

When I got out of college, I could have taken several different jobs. I graduated my undergrad in half the time it took everyone else to, had quite the professional experience, and one lovely tale. The options seemed endless, but I chose to start from the bottom up. Or so it seemed.
I applied as an executive assistant at a large corporation, and within a month, I held brainstorming sessions alone with the CEO, solved daily puzzles with the CFO, established a long-term friendship with the CPO, and contributed to the exclusive team leading the big new product.
Once that was over, I applied to a different, extremely different company for a similar position. The first thing I asked in the interview was, “Do you see an opportunity for me to create a role around my skills and aspirations?” They answered yes I and ended up leading much of the initiatives contributing to the transformation of the company.
I didn’t take these positions because I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I took those positions because I knew exactly what it is that I loved, and what it was that I still lacked. I was an absorber, and I absorbed every ounce of information and knowledge they threw at me. I knew that if I was going to start something of my own, I needed more than my skill & talent. I needed to know best practices, processes, systems, technique. And boy did I learn voraciously.
And let me tell you, I didn’t feel powerless at all. I had all the information, I knew all the right people, I knew exactly what was going on. Everything that happened in the organization, I was the first to see. I had exposure to daily practices and sentiment that management didn’t, and the information and knowledge that everyone outside of the management team didn’t.
When I left my job, my boss told me that the management team had a meeting about me, and concluded that they were all going to work for me one day.
I’m not here to boast, but rather to say that it’s our job to understand our power. This position could have just as easily become a secretarial role — copying papers, scheduling meetings. Instead, I automated, designed, planned, created, and most importantly, ABSORBED. And what I absorbed was precisely the piece I needed to be where I am today.

This is based on the work of social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, and my observation and experiences with different types of power. Use these types of powers to assess not only your own leadership style, but also those who you follow.

  1. Titular or legitimate power

This is the hierarchical command and control power that comes with the position, role, or title. This traditional type of power comes with the responsibility of making decisions and commanding others to follow orders, and also ensures that when a decision is made, the responsibility links back to someone.

The weakness of legitimate power is that the power follows the title, and not the person. Also, this type of power is situational, and applies only under specific conditions & environments. Legitimate power, if used exclusively, does more harm than good, and the overuse of this power generates distrust and resistance in subordinates. The managers I’ve seen who rely on this type of power to justify obedience and compliance are often least effective, and don’t realize how unreliable the power is. These people often lead and work with high levels of insecurity, causing variance of stability in performance and leadership. If your position allows you to make important decisions, use it carefully. When exerting legitimate power, understand that the power doesn’t belong to you. Try to combine this power with other types of power, and you’ll find yourself in a more stable position.

Likewise, if you’re working under someone who abuses this power, be sure to assess the situation before carrying out orders.

2. Coercive Power

Another type linked closely to legitimate power is coercive power, the ability to punish for noncompliance. This is perhaps the most ineffective means of power, yet used most often to strike fear. People who use this form of power set up consequences for disobedience, and force others into compliance. Variations of this power come in the forms of threatening and bullying, and lead to resentment and dissatisfaction.

While your position may allow you to punish others, the power alone doesn’t give you the right or justification to do so. In fact, you could force them to leave and therefore lose that power in the process. Be careful if you overuse this power, because people often respond to threats with greater threats.

Coercive power suggests insecurity and discomfort, and therefore takes away from legitimacy. If you are a coercive power user, just know that each time you threaten someone, you compromise trust and encourage disconnection. Make sure that’s what you want because you will see immediate effects.

3. Reward Power

Perhaps the opposite of coercive power is reward power, also closely linked to legitimate power. While coercive power is the power to punish, reward power is the ability to reward. Simple, right?

Like coercive power, this is a type of conditional & short-term power, only as valid as one’s position and ability to reward. Overuse of this type of power establishes high expectations for return, and focuses the subject’s attention on their gains rather than the bigger picture.

Managers often take advantage of the fact that they have the right to reward their employees, and seek to control their employees by giving them a reward once a task is completed correctly. A classic case of conditioning, they establish a culture of “do this and get that.” This is the type of power I’ve seen used most incorrectly; it’s far too easy to misuse rewards, and more often than not, it heightens employee expectations, frustration, and dissatisfaction in the long-run. A quick tip: if you’re going to reward your employees, take the time out to figure out what their values and desires are. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a manager is not knowing how to properly motivate your employees. When rewards aren’t perceived as valuable, your power weakens.

4. Informational Power

Knowledge is power. And having information that others want or need places you in a position of power. I’m not referring strictly to knowledge that you’ve assembled over the years, but also your access to information. Examples of informational power are if you know what the new title structure looks like, can access financial reports, understand approval workflows…etc.

Informational power is one of the top 3 most effective forms of power, and among the least utilized. When you have informational power, people look to you for answers and next steps. Your decision to distribute this information can serve as a catalyst for massive transformation. While you are in a position to share it, you have the options of withholding, concealing, distorting the information, giving you the power to manipulation people, systems, opinions, and your environment. You can use this tool to help others or as a bargaining chip, but ultimately, acknowledge that it may not be your information to share. If you abuse this type of power, you may lose it.

Many people do not understand the power of information. Don’t be one of them.

5. Expert Power

Expert power is very similar to informational power on many levels. It narrows in on an area of expertise, and the ability to do something better than everyone else. Like informational power, expert power is both functional and accessible. These types of power are easy to recognize by others, and therefore easy for the individual to leverage in a variety of situations. There’s so much untapped potential within these non-traditional sources of power that when used correctly, gives you substantial leadership force. A high level of expertise and experience allows you to naturally gain the respect and trust of others. In other words, if you offer value in your expertise, others will look to you for leadership, making expert power an excellent foundation for leadership. This, coupled with integrity, charisma, and vision establishes you as a powerful leader beyond your expertise.

6. Referent Power

Referent power, combined with integrity and character, is the among the most effective, influential, and stable forms of power. Individuals who have referent power attract followers through charisma and the ability to connect with others on a deeper level. When I think of referent power, I think of celebrities who have the ability to start trends and influence taste & opinions.

The most important thing about referent power is character, integrity, and responsibility. Because some people are born with a natural charisma & seduction, referent power can be powerfully dangerous if abused. It could be used to alienate large groups and create trends with extreme negative impact. I’m personally very skeptical of those who rely on referent power alone.

As mentioned prior, referent power, combined with strong values, creates a foundation of respect. Add expert power to this concoction and you have yourself a fan (Me).

7. Connection Power

This is the last on our list, but certainly not least. Connection power bears similarities with referent power and informational power, and is becoming increasingly powerful in our days of networking and finding like minds. Connection power is the ability to connect people, and also the access to connections.

When you have connection power, people look to you for guidance, for their answers. They approach you with the illusion that you have the ability to transform their future, and they’re not wrong. This type of power multiplies by spreading connection and developing more power. By connecting people together, you stand at the core of people’s friendships, create more friendships, and expand this vibrating frequency of network, community, and energy.

Conclusion

The most effective people and leaders understand how to use these different types of power, and equally important, when to use them.

Below are helpful questions and considerations inspired by Mindtools:

Carefully examine these types of power, and how you’ve used them in the past. Then create a list of ways you can use these powers to gain influence in your workplace. Be sure to assess how ready you are for these types of power, because if you’re not ready, these techniques will be ineffective.
If you have used these powers in the past, analyze the expected and unexpected consequences. Were you ready for them? If not, what do you need to gain in order to use them appropriately? What will you do differently next time?
How have others used these types of power with you? What was your reaction tot hem? If necessary, develop a strategy to reduce someone else’s illegitimate use of power over you.
Remember that you are never without power. Try to plan ahead for the next time you feel powerless. What types of power do you have, and when would they be appropriate to use? How can you be more aware of your power and when you use it?

I hope that this post will inspire my friend to discover his power at work, and also in day to day life. It’s incredible how very little of our power we recognize, and far less we actually use. But beyond that, this post is meant to show us how to use our power and how NOT to use it. In this day, it’s so easy to abuse power and use what we have to gain what we want. Use your power with integrity and have some faith in people. Your power is only as strong and the energy you use to earn it.

For the people I’ve seen who continuously abuse their power, I just have one question for you: why not spend that energy making positive impact and growing yourself rather than fretting over your power? If you focused on the right things, you wouldn’t have to worry about your insecurity and position.

At When Toys Age, these are the types of questions we examine to close the gap between management & employee expectations, and align individual aspirations with the company’s strategic goals. Our goal is to see potential, and the foundation of that is guiding you to understand your power and use it to build yourself and build your company.

Thank you for reading.

Warmest Regards,

H

When Toys Age