Power is a word that is bandied about in the media, dropped in headlines and used to describe everything from dictators and politicians, to the everyday person and their ability to create change. The definition of power becomes murky in the context of the workplace, but it becomes clearer when we ask the right questions. 

Firstly: What is power?

Very simply, power is the ability to act. It is often associated with the ‘strong and mighty’, but power is exercised every time we make something happen in our own lives or in others’. Every individual, no matter size, strength, or position uses power. We do this every day, from the moment we decide to get up out of bed to the moment we decide to fall asleep.

Why does power become so complicated in the workplace?

Power takes on different forms when it is extended outwards and exercised in a workplace context. The context that we’re in determines how power manifests itself. Often, you don’t notice power paradigms until you become consciously aware of them. People are most likely to notice power when they reflect on a situation where they felt dis-empowered. This means that most people are completely oblivious to how power works on a day-to-day basis.

Because power is used by everyone all the time, understanding power in the workplace can help you deal with co-workers, avoid being bullied, and support your team. Each manifestation of power is attained differently and can be broken down into several categories, as detailed below:

1) Coercive Power
Uses threats or force to make others listen to you and to change their behaviour. Coercive power is often associated with the boss who bullies, belittles, and badgers his employees to “do as they're told”. It can bring with it feelings of loathing and anger towards upper management. This type of power paradigm can fall away outside of a workplace environment because the workplace hierarchy is what supports it, outside of this context, the hierarchy is shattered.

2) Connection Power
Is the power of association. Connection power is based on who you know, who will support you, and the level of power they  wield. It is often used in second-level management, where people are in a position that allows them to make decisions, with the proviso that someone above them approves of their choices. The manager who defaults to: “don’t make me tell upstairs about this, just do as I say” is a person who is using their relationship with a senior as their power base. With this type of power, reputation of the connection alone, can be enough to deliver someone extra perceived power, yet, this type of power can quickly deteriorate if they are no longer supported by a superior.

3) Expert Power
Is the use of knowledge or skill to place oneself in control. If you have, or are seen to have expertise in a specific area, people feel obliged to listen to your council and act accordingly . This power rests on your ability to be the leading source of knowledge in a field and to help fix problems or generate new ideas. Expert power is maintained through keeping up-to-date with the most recent information and constantly honing your skill. If people doubt your level of proficiency, either due to failure or lack of knowledge, this power quickly evaporates.

4) Informational Power
Is the ability to access information that is key to completing a task or achieving a goal. It is closely related to expert power, but doesn’t require expertise. Rather, it requires being able to access information, and then use it to drive a project or complete deals. Much like expert power, if your ability to access the necessary information is severed, so too is your ability to exercise this power. 

5) Legitimate/Positional Power
Is the power granted through title or position and so it can be linked to authority. This type of power allows you to make decisions and delegate tasks, because the workplace hierarchy allows you to do so. This type of power is often tied to the level of responsibility that the position entails. For example if you are in charge of a department, the success or failure of that department rests on your shoulders. If the team fails, then you are held accountable, but, if the team succeeds your power is maintained. 

Issues tend to arise when the perceived power and responsibility becomes unbalanced. If the level of power that someone is given outweighs the individuals’ capacity to effectively use it, people will lose respect for the individual believing that they don’t deserve to be in such a position, thus straining the relationship and causing unrest.  

6) Referent Power 
Is the ability to influence through loyalty, respect, friendship, admiration, affection, or desire to gain approval. Essentially, it involves one person influencing the actions of another because of their desire to like them, or be liked by them. One example of this is the charismatic leader who makes other people feel good about themselves, this person is given power because other people want to be liked by him or to be like him in some way. On the other end of the spectrum is the sycophant who is always ‘sucking up’ to the boss. This person tries to create allegiance or affinity where there is none, in order to gain favour. 

Referent power is related to connection power because both use the power of association. In this case referent power can be used by both parties and can be less obvious to detect. 

7) Reward Power
Is anchored in the ability to bestow rewards. For example, the person in the company who assigns bonuses, job assignments, rosters, etc. While this power often comes with authority, authority or position are not required. 

Often, the person with the power to give rewards is put in a difficult position. If they are seen to favour someone in particular, or to be too democratic in their distribution of rewards, they can be looked down upon and the rewards lose their power. This form of power is also easily taken away, if the person in charge of rewards has their budget stripped away or their role is changed, they are likely to lose a lot of their reward power.

As you’re probably thinking, if one person is given a lot of power, such as: the ability to hand out rewards, legitimate/positional power, and connection power, then they are the most powerful person in the building! You’re also probably remembering back to a time where you felt dis-empowered and now you can explain exactly why that was. Remember though, power is simply the ability to act. 

In the end, if we are aware of how power manifests itself, avoid its pitfalls, and use it to maximize our potential, it can be a valuable tool. If we realise our own ability to act, and encourage those around us to do so, we can all become masters of power.