There’s no debating that positional power is useful because with status comes power. If someone has the authority to promote you, give you a raise or restructure you out of your job, it is likely that you are going to be responsive to their needs. The law of the jungle doesn’t feel very fair but it is probably here to stay.
Positional power does have its limits though. For one, as a leader, you only have that power for as long as you’re in the post. And positional power can often be a block to the valuable creative and critical contribution of the wider team. Leaders often sacrifice excellence for expedience and control by not being open enough to the ideas and influence of those whom they lead. Another shortcoming of positional power is that it doesn’t always allow us to influence people beyond the confines of our own organisation.
Personal power is a counterbalance for the shortcomings of positional power and because it is available to everyone and lacks the coercive element that positional power carries, personal power is better understood as influence. There are three key, interrelated things that determine how much personal power we wield. Our relationships, our communication ability and our expertise.
Above all else, it is the quality of our relationships that determines our personal power. Not just our relationships with the colleagues who work most closely to us on a day to day basis, but our relationships with people across departments and locations, and with people above us and beneath us in the organisational hierarchy.
To maximise personal power in your workplace, build a broad relationship base there. Spend time getting to know people whose paths you might not naturally cross. In particular, find out their values and who they are as individuals. What is their communication style and what are their drivers and motivations for work? If you know what they hope to be doing in five year’s time, you’ve done a good job of getting to know them.
To build these kinds of relationships takes some investment. For one it takes time – your most valuable resource – and secondly it requires you to break out of the comfortable social cliques that naturally form around us and spend time with people whom you might feel less of a natural affinity with. But as an investment it gives a big pay off in terms of your influence, not only because it builds trust and respect, but also because it gives you expertise. This broad relationship base will give you unrivalled insight into your organisation, its challenges and its strengths, as played out by the people in it.
An important aspect of relationship building is also getting to know influential people before you need them, and the best way to do this is to network. A good tip for networking is to start where you are. Look to the people you already know who could introduce you to influential people i.e. people with with positional power, personal power or both. Be strategic about it. Who do people go to for guidance? Who seems to make things happen in your organisation or sector? And just as importantly, ask who habitually creates obstacles to new ideas and resists change? You can find all this out through the informal chats you have with people while you are building your broader relationship base.
Also worth noting is that certain people are like gatekeepers to a whole load of other people and wider networks. If you spot someone who is super-connected and networked in this way, make relationship building with them a priority. Check social media to read up on what’s on their radar, have a coffee, go for lunch, ask for their input. Asking for others’ input and taking a collaborative approach is vital as people are more likely to back ideas they have already contributed to.
Worth a mention here also is that shyness is the enemy of this sort of relationship building. Most of us secretly feel we could use more social confidence and falter when it comes to making an approach. A nice trick to help overcome this sort of apprehension is to do a brainstorm of what would make you dislike a person who approached you, and modelling the reverse of the qualities you come up with.
Being well networked goes a long way in upping your personal power but it’s not enough by itself. You also need to be credible. No point getting to know one hundred and fourteen people across and between organisations if all one hundred and fourteen of those people think that you are an idiot. To have influence you have to spend time listening keenly to other people to draw on what they know. Talk to experts, test assumptions. Do your homework. Engage with critical thought. If there are prevailing beliefs in your sector, or entrenched processes, gently scrutinise them. Ask why?
Just as importantly, ask others to play devil’s advocate and pick at the corners of the ideas that you bring, to help you to refine your own perspectives. You can then anticipate objections and be ready to counter them. If you can get other people thinking and demonstrate that you are a thinker, then you’re bringing something valuable to the table that will be taken seriously by others.
However extensive your expertise is though, it will be impotent if you don’t know how to communicate it well. Knowing how to adjust your communication style and pitch to your audience isn’t really that hard if you brush up on your presentation skills and take the time to learn where the person you seek to influence’s priorities lie. And rightly or wrongly, it is the emotional arguments that win the day. Not as in shout and cry at the people you seek to persuade, but make them care. You win the emotional argument by knowing what people care about and presenting that thing as being at stake. If you don’t know what someone cares about, then you have more listening to do. This is why you shouldn’t try to exert influence prematurely, always do the groundwork first so you can pitch it right.
And demonstrate how much you care, too. People are unlikely to buy into something if you don’t appear to be100% bought in to it yourself. If you make proposals in a lukewarm way, you’ll get a lukewarm response – at best. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you keep the ‘why’ alive for yourself, that energy and sincerity will come across and get a positive response.
Regardless of your role at work, there’s power and influence just waiting to be grasped by you. So do a little audit of your personal power and before you leave this blog behind, write down the name of three people you could go for a coffee with either in or beyond your organisation. These people could be anyone you don’t yet know or know well, people who could give you some useful advice, share their own perspectives or experience about something or simply reveal to you a little more about who they are. Then email the first one today.
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