Power Surges

“Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
Margaret Thatcher

The original power play manual

The authors of Enlightened Office Politics, Michael and Deborah Dobson, write that one of the most important skills in winning political games is understanding the various forms of power and how to use them.

“Power” is a word that many of us associate with unpleasant ideas: it makes us think of egocentric politicians and crazy movie villains. Somewhere along the way, power and abuse became linked in our cultural lexicon. But almost everyone has some sort of personal or positional power that they exercise in the office, even if we don’t often call it by name. Here are the common sources of power:

Role Power: Your role power comes from your title and function within your company.  This is power that is given to you by others, and as such, can be taken back by them as well (or granted only on paper.)  We’ve all met someone who has a powerful title but no real authority. Role power is fragile for that reason; you could have a title without the implied power that comes with it, or you could be re-assigned, demoted or fired at any moment. A variation of role power is the power that comes with a title or award; this has more staying power because these titles (whether it’s a Ph.D. or a national football title) are understood to be earned, rather than conferred.

Respect Power: This is personal power, made up of your reputation, actions, and even your appearance. There have been studies that indicate that your age, fitness level, attractiveness and even your height can make a difference in your earnings and promotions. People also judge you by how you conduct yourself, your seniority (which implies wisdom), your skills, and whether you follow through on what you say (good news if you’re short and hate to exercise.)

Rhetoric Power: Command of the language, both written and personal, play a big part in power politics. Articulate people are more persuasive, and superior writing skills are rare enough to be valued highly in the workplace. It’s not about big words and sounding smarter than other people; it’s really about clarity in your message – and even being a good listener. Dobson and Dobson also write that humor is a very powerful tool. Humor can ease tension, create emotional connections, and position you as confident and likeable – powerful stuff.

Resource Power: Dobson and Dobson write: “Everything you want is already owned or controlled by someone else, and that creates a political situation.” Competition for scarce resources creates most of the tension in an office environment, as people compete for headcount, funding, even office location. A former boss of mine used to call this the Golden Rule; “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Like role power, resources are usually the company’s and not yours personally (unless you’re the owner), so this power can move from person to person quickly.

Relationship Power: This is power by association, and the real problem with office politics.  If you’re a manager and befuddled by empty flattery (aka brown nosing), this is the problem. Your power is, in part, derived by whom you’re close to. This is one of the most abused power plays, in part because it can be faked (unlike the others, which are verifiable.) People drop names all the time, hoping to imply a close relationship and gain status from the more powerful person. Most people name drop badly and only make themselves look foolish and insecure. Allison Mooney, writing for Details Magazine, writes: “Dropped names are like toupees: Badly done, they are obvious and show poor taste. Carefully deployed, however, they work wonders for your image.”

Homework assignment: Review the list of sources above.  Which is your current strength? Is that power given to you, or are you the source? How effectively are you using your power in office interactions?

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