• Sharon Peake

5 steps to enhance your power at work

How much power do you have at work? How well do you influence and motivate others to get things done? Do people do things willingly, or because you’re the boss?

Not all power is equal or effective. Some leaders can find their power resisted, while others can motivate those beyond their official power reach. The difference can lie in the type of power base being used. But what are these power bases and how do we use them? Let’s start by looking at the 7 power bases social psychologists French & Raven identified, and how to find an approach that works for you.

  1. Coercive power uses the threat of force, or sanction. For example threatening an employee with demotion, a pay cut or even dismissal. Coercive power is typically used to get an employee to do something they most likely don’twant to, such as taking on additional responsibilities without reimbursement or leading an unfavourable project. In some cases it can be tantamount to bullying: think Donald Trump. Although it can be effective in the short-term, long-term it tends to be a win-lose approach and isn’t recommended.

  2. Reward power is based on the ability to reward an employee with something they want such as a salary increase, their next promotion, the ability to work flexibly or an introduction to an important network tie. Essentially any action an employee wants that the person with power can grant. Used legitimately, it can be an effective short-term power base but ultimately loses long-term effectivity given that most ‘wants’ cannot be granted over a sustained period of time.

  3. Legitimate power is about ‘being the boss’. In most organisations this power is determined by job title or grade. The higher the grade the greater the legitimate power. It can be an effective power base with direct reports but it’s generally less effective in influencing those outside your remit of control. And of course, if you lose the position, you lose the power with it.

  4. Referent power is the power derived from a shared connection through groups, associations, networks or communities that employees belong to. Power is often “rubbed off” on members, particularly where the group or association enjoys higher social status. Members of elite sporting clubs and colleges, and even certain professional networks can benefit from referent power. A good example is the prevalence of Eton educated former Prime Ministers in the UK.

  5. Informational power is all about what you know. It’s probably easy for us to recognise someone in the office who has a particular talent for gaining access to information which is then used to enhance their power base. I’ve known a lot of PAs who have strong information power, being privy to the decision making that goes on at executive levels. But informational power can also be very effective when combined with the ability to make persuasive, logical arguments that influence others.

  6. Expert power is all about your knowledge, skills and experience. Your expertise boosts your credibility, performance and reputation, usually over a sustained period of time. Expertise is a powerful means of influencing others, as long as you include the views and contributions made by others. Expert power can be a very effective win-win approach.

  7. Charismatic power wasn’t in the list of power bases originally identified by French and Raven but was added later to acknowledge the ability some people have to bring others with them through the sheer force of their personality and charisma, without promises of reward or coercive threats. Think Jackie Kennedy Onassis or Nelson Mandela.

So, what sort of power base should you use? Firstly the effectiveness of power is often situational. One type of power base will be more effective for one leader than another, and less effective in a different situation. Equally some approaches work better for direct reports or peers and others work better for influencing those more senior to you.

Power also varies in different cultural contexts. The social psychologist Geert Hofstede found cultural variations in the concept of ‘power distance’ – that is, the degree of inequality between more and less powerful individuals. Whereas a high power distance exists in South East Asia, South and Central America, lower power distances often exist in more western cultures.

And of course power can be used fairly or malignly. When used for good the most win-win approaches are informational and expert. They work for most audiences and aren’t reliant on transient power, negative backlash to threats or the disappointment in unfulfilled rewards. Rather they organically foster loyalty, cooperation and respect given they are based on skill, and a shared contribution.

5 steps to rethink and shape your power base

  1. Look at your organisational leaders, particularly those you see as positive, effective and influential. Which power bases do they use?

  2. Think about your own style. When have you been at your most impactful and influential as a leader and which power bases did you use?

  3. When have you been at your least influential as a leader and identify which power bases you used?

  4. Consider how you could use a different power base to get better results. You may need to build expertise by strengthening your knowledge of processes, products, or the organisation. You may need to develop broader industry networks, or learn how to put your points across in a more persuasive way.

  5. Commit yourself to actions by writing down the first steps you will take to enhance your impact and keep a log to chart your journey.

Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of getting more women into senior leaderships roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.

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