Plato said “The measure of a (wo)man is what (s)he does with power”. What do you do with it? Covet it? Recoil from it? Find it attractive? Step into? Or begrudgingly hold its weight?
Like money, power is a currency which runs through our daily life and can bring up stories about ourselves and our place in the world, at work and at home. As such, power is a topic which comes up often in my coaching relationships. This blog explores the different sources of power and provides ideas for how to access them and the pitfalls to avoid.
To start us off, an empowering thought: in her book ‘The Power Pyramid’, Diane Tracy says that power operates much like love does – the more you give, the more you will receive. Finding opportunities to empower others, results in us being more powerful. I find this idea so heartening and encouraging – seeing power as something that should be shared rather than squirreled away makes the concept feel more generous and less Machiavellian and unscrupulous.
When I work with individual clients one-to-one, a common challenge is ‘managing up’. “How can I get what I need from my relationship with my line manager or influence senior stakeholders?” “How can I help my department/organisation /clients to make better decisions?” “How do I get through the bureaucracy, so I can actually do what they pay me to?” Something that can help is reflecting on where you do have power and influence (where are my opportunities?) what you would like to change (where are my blocks?)
Ironically, when I work with organisations, one of the common themes that comes up is how to encourage employees to “step up and take responsibility”, be proactive and manage internal stakeholders to deliver results. The more complex an organisation becomes, the greater the need to delegate – no one person can wield all the influence and make all the decisions. To grow, employers need to share out the power and encourage upward influence. If, in reality, there is a reticence to allowing power to flow up and down the organisation, it’s worth considering – what’s the block?
To help this exploration, here’s a spot of theory. ‘Knowledge is power after all’! Back in 1960, French and Raven identified five sources of power legitimate, reward, coercive, expert, and referent. Since then an additional source, information, was added to the list. Of the six sources of power. Three of these are external – legitimate, reward and coercive – and come from to one’s position. Three are personal – expert, information, and referent – these sources of power come from you and your qualities, they originate from within not from external factors.
Positional power sources
- Legitimate power, which comes from one’s role in an organisation. Your role gives power to instruct and make decisions. People comply because of they recognise the legitimacy of your position. Some leaders look to increase their legitimate power by creating policies and procedures that give them final say on decisions and processes. On face value this type of power can be very attractive and it may be coupled with increased status and salary. The pursuit essentially is the plot of Succession. However, it has its pitfalls (see Succession): Overuse of legitimate power can slow things down creating a maze of processes, which inhibit decision making and productivity. And if wielded with emotional intelligence or explanation it can really negatively impact morale, retention and performance. It should be distributed down and around an organisation.
- Reward power is a person’s ability to influence others’ behaviour by giving them things they want. Sometimes this is financial e.g. a bonus but this also includes working arrangements, interesting projects and praise. Key for this use of power to be effective is that people want and appreciate the rewards on offer.
- Coercive power, on the other hand, is a person’s ability to influence others by punishment or perceived threat. This might look like criticism, blocking them from information, less favourable work or working conditions, demotion or disciplinary or firing. This power source has limitations in efficacy and real risk of causing harm.
Personal power sources
- Expert power your professional competence, skills and knowledge give you expert power. This power usually specific to a well-defined area where the person with expert power is seen to be credible, trustworthy, and useful and therefore receives access and influence.
- Referent power comes from our personal characteristics, which people like, respect and may wish to emulate. This speaks to the quality of our relationships, our ability to connect and perhaps charm people.
- Information power is like expert power but differs in its source. Where an expert will usually have a treasure trove of skill and knowledge in a specific area someone with information power is distinguished by their access to specific information. This can be really powerful and helpful e.g. knowing who to go to in order to get things done, having pricing knowledge in a negotiation.
Now we know the various forms, which power can take. Here are some reflective prompts:
- What is my go-to source of power? Why do people value it?
- How does that help my career?
- What sources of power do I need to cultivate?
- Who can I learn from?
- What is my intention?
- What is the impact?
- How can I give power to others?
The last questions are goodies – remembering that power and trust have a complicated relationship. Are you using your power benevolently and with integrity? Are we growing our power by extending it to others?
As ever with these things, knowledge and reflection takes us part of the way. The real change comes from action: taking small steps in a different direction and trying on some new thinking. This takes courage. Courage to practice, to see yourself as someone who has power and influence, role model it’s positive impact and encourage others to do the same by passing it on.
This article was written by Emma Gill, one of Careering into Motherhood’s Partner Coaches. Emma provides career and confidence coaching for individual clients and works with organisations to help them to create more inclusive, supportive workplaces. She offers free discovery calls for prospective clients.
November 1, 2023