The Truth About Power in the Workplace
Executive coach Liz Bentley on why power matters and how to get it.
Power dynamics in the workplace can be subtle and hard to discern. While your company’s org chart may tell one tale, the reality is often far more complex.
That’s because many power differentials are at play in a company at any given moment. To this point: if you were to ask yourself who does and doesn’t have power in your organization, and where you land, would you know the answers? Many people would argue you don’t need to know or that it doesn’t matter, but it absolutely does.
Power ultimately gives you the ability to drive results. Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a mid-level manager at a small start-up, without power, you won’t get as much done as you could. To prime yourself for career success, you must understand all the forms of influence happening in your workplace. Here’s a look at where to start.
Rethink what power means.
“Power” can be seen as a dirty word, as having power means that someone else does not. And, indeed, the reality is that there will always be people who abuse their power in the workplace. But when people use power for good, they can create positive working environments, high-quality products and services, and opportunities for others.
To get started on your journey toward greater influence, you can’t be afraid of power—and if you are, you have to address why. Some people are afraid of having power because it means they have to make difficult decisions, push limits, and sometimes even upset people. Having power means being OK with being uncomfortable, which is what so many of us avoid.
But even those who are accepting of power aren’t guaranteed to have power. Getting power requires being smart, even calculating. It’s anticipating people’s wants and needs, and using that information to influence them.
Map out the existing power dynamics and a path forward.
Once you understand it’s not only OK but important to have power, your next step is to assess how much power you have and how you are going to obtain more. While getting to this point is not straightforward, asking yourself the following questions can bring clarity:
Who has the power?
Hint: it’s not necessarily the people you like or think are popular. The people who actually have power are the ones whose decisions get implemented, the ones who get things done, the ones who control resources, and the ones who have the attention of their higher-ups. Often, people with power are resented for it.
Who doesn’t have the power?
People in this category may be nice to work with, and have some influence, but when it comes to the big things—like getting raises, pursuing new projects, and getting decisions made quickly—they can’t get it done.
How much power do you have?
Be honest and see your truth. Whether you like power or not is not the issue; it’s whether you can get it. You have to realistically assess where you are so you know what you need to do and where you need to go.
What are your objectives, and why?
You need to understand what you are trying to accomplish in obtaining more power. Do you want to get a promotion, obtain more money for your projects, have your ideas listened to, or win important clients? All of these require some degree of power. So you need to be specific with your goals: what they are, why you want to achieve them, and what amount of power they will require.
What is your company’s culture?
Know what your company will tolerate when assessing your approach. Is it an environment that honors risk-taking or shames it? Is it a place where leaders address conflict head-on or through passive channels? Is it hierarchical or flat, traditional or adaptive? Your goal is to figure out what the work culture rewards and what it punishes so that you can come up with an actual path forward.
Get specific in your strategy.
Now that you have a clear understanding of your existing power dynamics and goals for the future, it’s time to get to the details: How exactly are you going to gain more power and influence? How can you avoid being resented? Keep these pointers in mind:
Assess who you need to influence.
Who are the key players that can get you to a place of more influence and control?
Identify who will obstruct your progress.
You want to know what headwinds you’re facing so you can avoid them. This is equally as important as knowing who to influence.
Build rapport with people who already have influence.
They don’t even have to be directly related to your goal, but should be someone your company’s top decision-makers respect.
Align your integrity with your actions and goals.
This cannot just be about your ego; if it is, you’re abusing your power. Getting power should be about driving positive change for you and those around you.
Be confident, not arrogant.
It’s not just about you; it’s about advancing the ideas or objectives you believe in. And if it is about advancing you, it should be because you believe you will make a positive difference.
Don’t be afraid to shake it up.
Power takes courage and sometimes making people uncomfortable in order to eventually get to a better place.
The reason most people fail to get power is because of their impatience and desire for it to happen immediately. It may take many moves to get where you want to be.
Remember, all of this is a process that takes time. Be patient, stay focused, and make your move.