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Understanding Power and Influence at Work

How prepared are you to handle the issues of workplace power, authority and influence? Those issues shape the formal, informal and political landscape of virtually every organization on the planet. 

Organizational power, authority and influence

To be honest with you, most of us have had little if any formal training or education on these important and in some cases taboo topics. We are expected to learn about the complexities of organizational power authority and influence through our individual experiences and trial and error learning, which can sometimes be quite painful.

That’t because people make some mistakes with regard to power, authority and influence. The list is short but quite comprehensive in terms of human reactions in power relationships:

  1. not taking the time to fully understand the formal authority and power that is attached to your current position at work;
  2. failing to take proactive steps to increase your personal influence at your place of employment and
  3. failing to effectively influence and manager working relationship with your boss.

Where power comes from

Work power has lots of definitions but a person or group has power when they possess the capacity to exert influence or control over the actions of others to bring about desired outcomes.  A person or group has power when they have the ability to impact or control the behavior of others through any number of different means.

Those in power typically possess something that someone else desires, and we think about power we frequently think about presidents and kings and CEOs and military leaders and the like, but the truth of the matter is that we all possess some degree of power that is attached to our current position.

Influence, power in action

Influence, on the other hand, is power in action.  Influence is the affected a person or workgroups actions can have on actual attitudes beliefs and actions of others. While power is the capacity to impact others influence can be thought of as the extent to which power is actually being put to use to impact others.

Influence means that a person or group is actually causing others to behave differently. So while the president of any organization may have a great deal of power his or her ability to influence daily behavior and actions might actually be quite limited.

The five basic types of power

John French and Bertram Raven developed the classification of the bases of power which are quite instructive and they made a case that certain factors can be used to create influence and create dependency. They identified five basic types of power: legitimate, reward, coercive, expert and referent.

  1. Legitimate power – is the formal authority granted to a person by their organization because of the position they hold. So our bosses have legitimate authority over us to assign work review our performance, grant us decision-making power and enforce many company policies because of their position in our organization’s chain of command and there is legitimate power attached to the position that you hold as well.
  2. Reward power – is a person’s ability to provide others with rewards incentives and inducements to influence their behavior. When a leader can control budgets pay raises bonuses and promotional opportunities it can have a powerful impact on the behavior of others when properly applied.
  3. Coercive power – is the opposite of reward power. When a person possesses coercive power in the workplace they can influence others by the use of sanctions, punishment, reprimands or removing benefits and/or resources. Coercive power is typically based on fear and the realization that if I am not compliant there will be negative consequences.
  4. Expert power – results from a person possessing a specialized knowledge or skill that is prized and needed by others. If you’re an expert people are willing to follow your lead because of your knowledge, the knowledge you possess, your ability to solve problems and your ability to make sound decisions.
  5. Referent power – is a concept that refers to the potential influence that a person can have over others through strength of personality connect with people and forge strong and effective working relationships with them. It’s also known as charismatic power and it’s based on the individual’s attractiveness and the personal characteristics and personality that they possess rather than a formal title or position that he or she might hold.

Common mistakes in dealing with power

  1. Not understanding the formal power of your current position –  Have you taken the time to assess how much legitimate power and authority is attached to your current position? Have you determined the things you control the decisions you can make and the actions you can take of your own accord?
    Don’t make the mistake of not knowing the extent of your position power and authority.  Whether it’s relationship building, communicating, motivating, building a team, coaching or decision-making it’s critically important to understand the power attached to your position that when properly applied can make these practices work.
  2. Not taking proactive steps to develop your personal power in your organization –  When you add up your position power in your personal power that will determine the amount of influence that you have in your organization and people with influencer in a better position to get things done and be more successful with their careers.
    There are a lot of frustrated leaders and professionals who feel as if they have very limited voice and the ability to impact what’s going on in their organization.  They often feel under-appreciated and disengaged and they are frustrated about their careers that they’re not where they thought they would be at this point of their working lives.
  3. Failing to effectively influence and manage your boss –  People assume that their only option was to transfer or leave their organization to escape. In effect most people believe that our bosses are boss and have never considered what they need to do to better manage them.

Increasing power and influence

Here are some very specific things that you can do to increase both your position and personal power:

  1. It’s really important to know and understand the position power that you possess in your current job. It’s important to know what you have to work with in the boundaries that you must operate within and know that if you don’t use your position power appropriately there’s a good chance that you just might lose some of it
  2. Be very careful not to make your position power the sole basis for getting work done because people will soon lose respect for someone who has no basis for power other than his or her title. Similarly the use of reward and coercive power can make people compliant but it doesn’t necessarily translate into people being committed to what you’re trying to accomplish.
  3. It’s an imperative to develop your professional and technical expertise as people acquire power and they possess needed skills and information. Becoming an expert in the area that is critical to your organization success is a surefire way to increase your organizational influence and your influence will be even greater if you teach this expertise to others.
  4. It also never hurts to become an expert on your own organization. Know your mission, your value, divisions products and services, customer base and the like. Knowing these important things and being in a position to use this information when needed makes you a great resource to the people around you.
  5. It’s really smart to develop great 360° working relationships, build strong teams and create strong social networks both within your organization and across your industry.  Creating and building on referent power base is something that most people can do if they’re willing to make it a real priority and they develop the emotional intelligence to do so.
  6. Projecting a positive attitude and demonstrating common courtesy to the people around you are all very effective tools for building your influence while are also creating a better place to work and be known as a person who’s easy to work with.