Power – it’s not a dirty word: it’s all about how you use it

As 2017 comes to a close and we head off to enjoy the holiday season, it is often a time of reflection and planning for the new year ahead.  One of the underlying themes in the consulting work that I have been involved in this year has been the effect that ‘perceived personal power’ has when we communicate, work and grow together.

There seems to be a concerted effort by leaders to tackle engagement levels by opening more channels of communication.  In response to this, some employees show caution, fence sitting and even sceptism.  The reasons for these ‘red light’ reactions are many and varied, however when you speak to these employees, the common underlying theme comes back to a perceived power imbalance between themselves and their managers and leaders.  Whether this is real or not is immaterial.  So how do we get over this hurdle?

Firstly, we need to understand how power manifests itself in our culture and our everyday interactions.  Secondly, we could stop seeing power in our working relationships as a finite resource.  What if we regarded power as an infinite resource?  No longer one cup of power to be disbursed in a boss employee relationship.  Instead we could have an infinite amount of power to share between us.

So what do we do with all of this new found power?  It will all depend on your intentions.  What do you want to do with it?  Whatever your intentions, you will need to get a grip on what types of power you can draw from.

Power can essentially be separated into two categories:

1.    Position Power

Is based on the formal authority a person holds and the resources they are officially able to control. In the past, supervisors relied heavily on their formal power, but this reliance has diminished in recent years.

Characteristics in our culture include inducing compliance and having power over others.

  • Coercive Power is based on fear. A leader high in coercive power is seen as inducing compliance because failure to comply will lead to punishments such as undesirable work assignments, reprimands, or dismissals.
  • Legitimate Power is based on the position held by the leader. The higher the position, the higher the legitimate power tends to be. A leader high in legitimate power induces compliance from or influences others because they feel that this person has the right, by virtue of position in the organisation, to expect that suggestions be followed.
  • Reward Power is based on the leader’s ability to provide rewards for other people. They believe that their compliance will lead to gaining positive incentives such as pay, promotion, or recognition.
2.    Personal Power

Describes a person’s informal influence. Influence is the more important and reliable power base. It rests on personal qualities attributes and knowledge that people respect them for possessing. Qualities such as self-respect and respect for others, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness and strength of personal vision and values are particularly important in building personal power.

Characteristics in our culture include gaining influence and power through others.

Specifically includes Expert, Information, Referent and Connection power

  • Expert Power is based on the possession of expertise, skills and knowledge, which gain the respect of others. An employee high in expert power is seen as possessing the expertise to facilitate the work behaviour of others. This respect enables them to influence the behaviour of others.
  • Information Power is based on the possession of, or access to, information that is perceived as valuable to others. This power base influences others because they need this information or want to be “in on things”.
  • Referent power is based on the ability to influence others because of their loyalty, respect, friendship, admiration, affection or a desire to gain approval. In other words, it’s about leading by example.
  • Connection Power is based on “connections” with influential or important persons inside or outside the organisation. An employee high in connection power induces compliance because others aim at gaining the favour or avoiding the disfavour of the powerful connection.

The changes that are occurring in our organisations and in society are increasing the importance of personal power.  This means that leaders and employees alike need to know practical ways of building their own personal power.  Here is a list of ways to build and maintain your personal power levels regardless of where you appear on the organisation chart:

  • Ask rather than tell
  • Walk your talk – practice what you preach
  • Be informed and share information when you can
  • Be approachable, honest and sincere in your feedback
  • Acknowledge good effort and praise good work of your colleagues
  • Demonstrate trust in your colleagues
  • Remember the social side of work
  • Know your own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes
  • Respect yourself and others

Andrea Collett
Former Senior HR Consultant
Email: consulting@cbb.com.au

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