Leadership is achieved via influence, and influence via power. When was the last time you stopped to consider your power and how you are using it to maximise your influence?
Power is socially constructed between two people, and therefore intangible, fluid and situational; it is based upon what we know and perceive about the other, overlaid with societal assumptions and norms, and against which we judge our own power in relation to them.1 It can shift over the course of a conversation or a meeting depending on the perceptions of each person, with our perceptions of others and judgements of ourselves influenced by our knowledge, expertise and experience; as well as the personal and societal biases we all carry as a result of our upbringing, education, culture and gender. This makes power complex.
By understanding your power sources and how to effectively use them you can maximise your influence in any situation. Here’s how.
There are six main sources of power which individuals and groups may have in relation to each other: positional power, reward power, expert power, information power, referent/personal power and coercive power. Expert power and personal power (which I refer to collectively from here on as ‘personal power’) are both likely to produce commitment during change, while position power and reward power are likely to elicit grudging compliance with change, and coercive power is likely to generate resistance to change.1
Personal power comes from your expertise, your legitimacy and relevance to the organisation, your personal attraction, putting in extra effort, as well as your personal qualities – your personality and behaviours – and the relationships you have with others. It is a function of who you are as a person.
Comparatively, positional power comes from the role you fill; and the amount of positional power you have depends on: how central your position is in a communication network; the criticality or uniqueness of your position; the flexibility you have in your role, and how much discretion the position carries; the visibility of your performance to the organisation; and the relevance of your role to the organisation’s strategic outcomes.
Personal power has the influence of true leadership, able to generate followers and create change. The fluid nature of power as a dynamic between people means that anyone can influence others as a leader, if they are perceived to have power. And this is why personal power is so valuable. It is not dependent upon role or position. It comes as a result of others validating your specific knowledge, skills, expertise, experience and/or proven track record, or having a good relationship with you. It leads people to sit up and listen to what you have to say, it allows you to inform and influence decisions. But it is entirely dependent upon the situation and context of the other participants in the conversation.
So how do you navigate the power dynamic, generate personal power at the right time, and make best use of your personal power to influence?
Take time to understand your specific power sources. How you see your own sources of power will influence how powerful you feel in any situation.1 What specific skills, expertise, experience, or relationship capital do you have that is considered valuable by the people in your organisation, your clients, or broader group of stakeholders? If you also have positional power, how does this intersect with, aid or even potentially dilute your personal power?
Consider how you use your power sources. Where and how do you most often apply your power sources – with who and in what contexts or situations? What additional opportunities (think specific situations and individuals or groups) might there be for you to gain and use power for positive impact? Are there any situations where you felt as though you didn’t have the power and influence that you could have? What might have been the reasons behind this, and what could you do differently in the future to mitigate this? How can you amplify your power sources, either strategically – for example by making sure the right people know what your specific skills, expertise or experience is; by leveraging your relationships appropriately; and ensuring you are well prepared for conversations by understanding the other person’s perspective – or in the moment – by adapting your message to the perceptions of the other person. In what context or situation might this be valuable?
What perceptions, assumptions or societal norms might be impacting how others view your power (positively or negatively)? You may need to seek others’ input here. Once identified, how can you mitigate these? For example, how can you leverage one of your power sources to moderate perceptions and shift the power dynamic?
Before a conversation, take time to understand the individual differences and perspectives that others may be bringing with them. How might you need to adapt to those to ensure you successfully shift the power dynamic and your contribution is valued? How could you acknowledge those perspectives in the conversation? Or shape your communication approach accordingly? For example, if you know the other person has a strong technical background, how can you use facts and data to share your position? Or if relationships and trust are important, how can you build this?
Before a conversation, identify what your role is in the conversation, and what others will be looking to you for. Are you the technical expert? Do you have the right external connections? Do you have a coordination role? Will you be making the decision?
As a leader, it’s also your role to build the personal power of others so they can contribute their expertise to create influence and positive outcomes.
What are the societal norms, assumptions and biases present in your organisation – including around gender, culture and disability – that may be impacting how potential leaders are able to exercise their personal power? Embracing diversity and individual differences will enable a shift in the balance of personal power within your organisation, enabling more people to contribute their expertise and unique experience, which will create positive impact in achieving change.
Consider those people in your organisation or team who can help create the change. What perceptions, assumptions or societal norms might be impacting how they or others view their power, therefore limiting the influence they are able to have? How can you help them understand their power sources and how to use them effectively? How can you, as a leader, bring their power sources to the fore, even amplify them, in conversations or meetings, so they can contribute a unique perspective, broaden the conversation and influence better solutions.
If you have both positional and personal power, how can you exercise them together to amplify the positive impact you are seeking?
1 Wiggins L and Hunter H (2016), ‘Symbolic acts and small gestures: Recognizing and shifting power dynamics’ in Relational Change: The Art and Practice of Changing Organisations, Bloomsbury, pp85-94.