How to Identify the Real Power in the Workplace

At first glance, it’s quite clear — the people at the top have power, and everyone else doesn’t. There’s an element of truth in this, of course.

If you have a position which gives you the last word in hiring and firing, rewarding and punishing, then you are powerful indeed. And we don’t hate you for it, because we know that you will always exercise this power with intelligence, sensitivity and responsibility.

Back to the real world. Power comes in different forms, and sometimes the kind of positional power just referred to is not the most influential force.

If we look at a powerful person as one who has the ability to get things done and to make things happen, we can see that there are several other sources of authority and influence.

The power of information

It’s thought that Francis Bacon, that brainy Elizabethan philosopher, scientist and author, first coined the phrase ‘Knowledge is power.’ What would Sir Francis make of the present-day abundance of knowledge so easily available to us all?

But at work, lots of the information which is really useful is not public knowledge. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what’s going on behind the scenes, which liaisons are being formed and which are being dissolved, who’s in the ascendant and who’s on the way down, who’s looking for another job, who’s looking to expand their team…

Some of your colleagues will have significant knowledge of developments in your own set-up, and they may have a handle on what is going on with your competitors as well.

Often it’s not just the people with positions, titles and status who have access to this sort of info, but it’s those who aren’t considered senior who have the real insights.

It’s like the kind of tea-lady associated with old comedies. She wheels her trolley past every desk, chats to everyone, shows an interest in their health and their families, sees what’s on everyone’s desk, overhears phone conversations — and wha’dya know, she only goes and passes on info which makes her very very rich and she takes over the company…

The power of expertise

Being really good at something gives you a great bargaining tool.

You have a choice — you can hug your expertise to yourself, or you can share it and use it for the greater good.

Keeping it to yourself gives you the satisfaction of feeling smug while others flounder, and it may enable you to work successfully on your own projects. However, it’s a pretty lame triumph if no one is aware that you can read that balance sheet like skimming a tabloid headline, or that you are great at developing systems to keep track of data.

Sharing your expertise establishes you as an authority and increases your professional reputation.

You might wish to be a bit savvy about selecting your areas of specialism. Back in the day, women who wanted to get ahead in certain jobs were advised not to say they could type. Once a typist, always a typist, too valuable to lose to the giddy heights of journalism, for example. Dark Ages, eh? Thank heavens nothing holds women back these days.

The power of likeability

We do things for people we like, that is people whose behaviour consistently demonstrates qualities to which we respond positively. These qualities usually include friendliness, trustworthiness, listening to and taking an interest in others, being courteous.

The power of a good track record

This may be a string of dazzling successes, or it may be a solid body of examples of things that you have done well. The odd slip-up or failure doesn’t matter, because people associate you with concrete achievements and with the qualities necessary to accomplish success.

The power of a network

Having access to people puts you in a powerful position, as anyone who has tried to get past a determined gatekeeper will know. Influential people have a range of mutually beneficial connections, increasing their access to information, ideas and opportunities.

The power of integrity

You will have met people who use their power and influence in negative ways. That is their choice.

A better choice is to use whatever sway you have with responsibility. Variants of the principle that great power implies great responsibility have been attributed through the ages to Voltaire, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt, and, of course, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. What’s good enough for a superhero…

How to develop your power base

  • Work out a map of the patterns of power and influence in your organisation.
  • Identify the main influencers. Observe their methods and behaviour.
  • Become an expert in more than one field.
  • Make your successes known.
  • Congratulate others on their successes.
  • Be generous — share knowledge and information, be helpful, do favours.
  • Develop an effective network.
  • Work on your people skills.

You might also like:

 How to Make Good Decisions

How to Speak with Authority and Impact

How to Listen