You Have More Power Than You Think

Much has been written about the quest for power.  Some studies indicate that human beings universally long not for freedom, per se, but power.  Whole civilizations have risen through the use of power.  Whole civilizations have fallen through the use of power.  But what does it mean to have power inside organizations, and how can we wield it to good effect?  Who, exactly, has power when working on teams unified around a common set of goals?  The answer, as it turns out, is everyone.  Everyone has power because power does not exist in just one form.  The connotation of the word mostly centers around position power, but in reality, power takes at least three forms: position, knowledge, and relational.

more power than you think

Position Power

This power derives directly from your title and place within the organizational hierarchy.  When you “tell someone what to do” or “make the call,” you are using position power.  Exit a powerful role and you cede that power, however.  A CEO who leaves his or her position to consult organizations on the side forfeits a lot of power in the process.  And the position power afforded certain roles—from mid-level managers to C-suite executives—tends to enable the incumbent to execute a wide array of tasks simply by asking (or telling).  And while this power has its advantages and is a legitimate lever to pull in certain instances, it is in fact the weakest of the three.  You know you’re doing something wrong if you rely on position power to get your way throughout most interactions.  This is especially true in a knowledge- and service-based economy where the best ideas should win independent of who offered them.  The old command-and-control, military-style model of leadership is anachronistic in the digital age.  Over-use of this power damages relationships and reduces your credibility.  Consequently, position power is not something to covet, but rather, to use mostly as a last resort.

Knowledge Power

In a knowledge-based economy that is forever changing, we must compete on ideas.  The better your ideas, the more power and influence you wield.  The deeper your expertise, the more indispensable you become.  Investing time, energy, and in some cases, money, into increasing your knowledge in a particular domain of expertise has never been more vital to your long-term success, and never been more essential to the constructive acquisition of power.  But this power isn’t restricted to purely technical or academic domains—knowledge power is the power of expertise, of know-how, of deep skill, of experience, of sound and seasoned judgement.  Work to cultivate this power in areas of natural strength for yourself, in areas of work you naturally gravitate to and enjoy, and watch your power increase over time.

Relational Power

This power underscores the interdependent nature of the knowledge economy—that nothing happens in a vacuum, that we rely on the quality of our relationships to get things done, to do great work, and to learn and grow.  People often won’t remember the details of how a particular project or work experience went, but they will remember how they felt about working with you.  This is the power of creating and maintaining highly constructive, quality relationships with people.  It underscores the importance of listening deeply, seeking first to understand before being understood, giving the credit away when things go well and taking the blame when they go poorly, and allocating your time such that two thirds is spent on managing tasks and one third is spent on managing relationships.  This power captures the value of emotional intelligence as well.  When we deploy this power effectively, we contribute more to our relationships than we take.  In this regard, relational power works in precisely the opposite way as position power.  Whereas relying on position power reduces our credibility, relying on relational power increases our credibility.

Often, those aspiring to more position power try to reach for it directly, which tends to backfire.  Their actions convey the impression of empire-building, of acting more like a mercenary than a missionary.  Inadvertently, they reveal how ill-suited they are to increasing levels of position power, and stymy their chances of achieving the very thing they ostensibly wanted so badly.  When organizations promote people thoughtfully and carefully, it is usually in favor of those who demonstrate high levels of knowledge and relational power, which are potent forms that every one of us can access, regardless of role, tenure, expertise, or aspiration.  When you expand your definition of power, you expand your access to it.

Wash Post Life is the people side of The Washington Post focusing on stewarding a culture of innovation, ownership, speed, collaboration, and diversity within a rapidly growing media and media technology company.

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