Power at Work: What it Really Means and How to Gain Power (Even When You Think You Have None)

power at workWhat do you think of when you hear the word power? What comes to mind when you think of power at work?

Most people respond to this question, with some description akin to, “it conjures up images of people in status positions manipulating, deceiving, abusing power” or they bring up Machiavelli and ethically questionable ways of winning power. The default notion of power in our society isn’t pretty.

However, power is often misunderstood – and it is not inherently bad. This common misperception of its inherent qualities may be leaving you feeling disempowered. The more you understand power, the more power is accessible to you.

What you do with power determines its flavor and level of morality. Because power feels like such a dirty word and because few people actually have formal power, conversations about power can often feel disempowering. My intention in this article is to begin to unpack many of the different forms and layers of power to find out what is actually available and what is actually limited. Empowerment begins once you recognize the power that is available to you.

The Uncomfortable Truth About Power at Work

Every high achiever I have ever met wants more power at work. The problem is that for most, it feels uncomfortable to admit the desire for more power. It feels wrong, manipulative, or even dirty. Before you can gain power at work, you must understand that in order to forward any agenda – be it wholesome or malevolent – you must have power.

To get more power, you must first own your desire for it unapologetically. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting more power. The desire for more power can come from good or bad intentions – if you want more power to wreak havoc on your colleagues and community, you may want to question your intentions. However if your desire for power stems from taking care of yourself, your loved ones, your team, your strategy, your goals, your organization, etc.— you need power to get any of this done. If you are powerless, you cannot do good in the world.

The Good News About Power at Work

Anyone can be powerful. That’s right, you don’t have to be CEO to have or gain power at work. There are at least a dozen different types of power within organizations; different roles and personalities offer different types of power. Some forms of power at work are up for grabs, if you are willing to put in time, effort, and energy. Other types of power at work are harder to earn. Let’s break down the types of power at work to get a deeper understanding of what might be available to you:

Formal or Legitimate Power

This is the most commonly known type of power; it is what most picture when you say the word power. Formal power is when someone holds an official title or role, accompanied by status and leadership in a particular domain or organization, a.k.a. “The boss” or someone who sits hierarchically above others.

*Accessibility Note: Limited to those with access to certain roles

Expert Power at Work

Expert power may or may not come from a role or title; it is much more aligned with deep experience, skill, and/or knowledge about a particular area of significance in an organization or industry. The more rare and difficult the expertise is to get, the more credibility, respect, and subsequent power a person will have.

*Accessibility Note: Limited to those with access to certain expertise, or those willing to gain expertise

Reward Power at Work

When a person has the ability to pay or otherwise compensate others in their organization, this is reward power. Rewards may come in the form of grants, promotions, raises, jobs, or other perks. Reward power is often coupled with legitimate power, but not always.

*Accessibility Note: Limited to those with access to certain forms of legitimate power

Coercive Power at Work

If you invert reward power, you will find nefarious situations where people in power create fear among those who sit hierarchically below them, by threatening to punish them in a variety of ways for not playing by their rules. This is coercive power. Some examples of coercive power may include demotions, loss of privileges, transfers, terminations, and bullying.

*Accessibility Note: Best to avoid its use

Informational Power at Work

This is where someone has broad institutional knowledge. It differs from expert power, in that expert power tends to be deep expertise about an area of an organization, skill, or industry, while informational power tends to relate to general knowledge about an organization and its processes, culture, people, and history. Someone with informational power may hold a long tenure at an organization or have a role with broad oversight.

*Accessibility Note: Dependent on role and situation, but generally up for grabs.

Network or Connection Power at Work

This kind of power is all about whom you know and how big your network is. Network and connections here may relate to internal or external connections – and may even include personal networks.

*Accessibility Note: Up for grabs

Referent Power at Work

Referent power is most commonly associated with those with charisma and likeability. Famous people, social media influencers, and some politicians are examples of those with referent power, but anyone who can win influence with their appeal and attractiveness has access to referent power.

*Accessibility Note: Up for grabs, although most accessible to extroverts.

Location or Centrality Power at Work

One form of centrality power is location power, which is all about how connected you are physically to those with power. How much face time do you have with leadership? How often do you see the executive team? How central – physically – are you to what is going on? This is the opposite of the adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” If your desk is conveniently located near the C-suite or situated on the way from the cafeteria to the bathroom, you likely have centrality power. If you are in the office with your boss and everyone else is remote, that would also give you location power.

*Accessibility Note: Up for grabs, although some location dependencies.

Operational or Centrality Power at Work

Another type of centrality power is operational power, which more closely relates to organizational structure and connectivity to the processes of those with power. If your job in the mailroom is to hand deliver important mail to the executive team, if you are the liaison between important teams, or if you are the personal assistant or tech support to organization’s top leaders, you likely have centrality power.

*Accessibility Note: Up for grabs.

Linguistic or Framing Power at Work

Someone who has excellent command of the language has easy access to linguistic power. If you are able to frame requests, statements, and questions in a way where you can influence the perspective of others, you have linguistic power.

*Accessibility Note: Up for grabs.

Agenda Power at Work

If your role enables you to influence the agenda of what is discussed in meetings, to prioritize what is or isn’t accomplished, or to decide on resourcing for an organization, you have agenda power.

*Accessibility Note: Dependent on role and situation, but generally up for grabs.

For a deeper dive into the principles and sources of power, read professor of organizational power and politics at the University of San Diego, Craig Barkacs’ article on the Sources of Power.

The Bad News About Power at Work

Here’s the bad news about power at work. The more formal power you have, the greater chance you will be poisoned by it. Simply put, power tends to go to your head and inflate your sense of self, sending you on what some call, a power trip. This unfortunate truth (along with the prevalent use of coercive power) may just be why power has such a bad reputation.

According to Stanford professor Robert Sutton, the more power one has in an organization, the more likely one is to lack empathy, sensitivity, and kindness to others. He said, “Much research shows that being and feeling powerful provokes people to focus more on their own needs and wants, and to become oblivious to others’ needs and feelings. And as we all know, sh*t rolls downhill.” He noted that all kinds of people are at risk for this, and most are unaware of the impact power has on their behavior. The ripple effect of a leader being poisoned by power can be incredibly detrimental to the organization as a whole as well as the people in it.

Other negative side effects of power may include being in a relentless spotlight, a constant demand on your time, and lack of honest feedback and authentic relationships.

What this all means is that as you build your power, you must be attentive to its potentially negative impact on how you lead, how power affects your relationships, and ensure you are using the power you are gaining in the right ways. The often-exaggerated term power trip should be something to watch out for as you climb the ladder.

How to Gain More Power at Work

To have the conversation about what you can do to increase your power – and use it for a good agenda – we have to revisit the good news and the bad news. Here are five tips to put yourself in a higher position of power. Many of these tips are inspired by the work of Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s School of Business and author of Power: Why Some People Have it – and Others Don’t.

1. Determine What Power Is Available to You

Figure out where you can gain an edge in power and focus your efforts accordingly. Ask yourself:

  • What kind(s) of power at work do you already have?
  • What kind(s) of power is available to you at your org and in your role?
  • What kind(s) of power comes naturally to you?

2. Keep Your Power in Check

As you gain more power, always be on guard and check yourself for any perceived lowered levels of empathy, kindness, consideration of others. Statistics don’t lie; so don’t let yourself fall into the power trip trap. Enroll colleagues and friends to hold you accountable for leading with compassion.

3. Don’t Be Naïve

Melvin Lerner, esteemed professor of social psychology and educator of the just-world hypothesis, warns us that although we all want to believe in a just world, it just isn’t true. If you believe this to be true, it inhibits your ability to learn and understand the world accurately. This means that you must keep your guard up, assume your colleagues are also your competitors, and prioritize your needs and agenda at work. Be your biggest champion.

Pfeffer agreed when he said in his book,“Believing that the world is fair, people fail to note the various land mines in the environment that can undermine their careers.”

4. Build Self-Awareness and Self-Reflective Capacities

Don’t put all of your energy into the hardest type of power to attain. If you are paving a path to power, start by understanding your strengths and your environment. As Pfeffer said, “The best path to power combines two things: 1) a path that not many are taking, and 2) something that you are capable and comfortable with doing.” Begin where you are to make notable and consistent progress.

5. Practice Practice Practice

If you were to want to learn a new language or musical instrument, you would not sit back and wait for the skill and learning to come to you. If you genuinely wanted to gain skills, you would take lessons, practice, and set milestones along the way.

The same goes for your pursuit of acquiring power skills. Pfeffer said of the people who are in power, that they, “Understand the bases and strategies for acquiring power, and take action consistent with their knowledge in a skillful way. Skill at anything requires practice, and power skills are no different.”

The Bottom Line

Most clients I work with who are in pursuit of gaining more power or navigating organizational power more effectively don’t realize how much access they actually have to power. There are often easy wins within reach – if you look for and recognize the opportunities.

I’ll end this article with another appropriate quote by the power guru, Pfeffer. He said,  “People who don’t have as much power as they would like often begin by attributing their difficulties to the environment – competitors, bosses, economic circumstances, and so forth. But in reality people are customarily their own biggest impediment to being as powerful as they would like.”

In other words, there are always ways of gaining more power at work – you just have to look for them and be willing to put in the effort it takes to gain more power at work.

If this article piqued your interest, I highly recommend Pfeffer’s book, Power: Why Some People Have it – and Others Don’t.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.