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Why power-play is not a bad thing

For many middle managers the illusion of authority is incredibly frustrating.  Yet they routinely underestimate their own power and because they don’t believe they have it, they miss out on having more impact.

A lack of power or influence is a common complaint among mid-level leaders, leaders who are seen as an authority by their teams, but who are not yet senior enough to make the decisions that matter most.

For many, this illusion of authority is incredibly frustrating.  Yet these ‘B-Suite’ leaders routinely underestimate their own power and because they don’t believe they have it, they fail to exert it and miss out on having more impact as a result.

This is one of the great middle management challenges – and one of the differences between old-school middle manager, and a high impact B-Suite Leader. Leading from the B-Suite requires us to rapidly master ways to influence our environment and playing with our power is an important lever to pull. Authority and power are often used interchangeably in the pursuit of influence, so let’s clearly separate them in order to play with them more accurately.

  • Power is the level of influence you can exert over someone else.
  • Authority gives you the right to exercise that power.

Positive power-play can help you gain influence beyond the scope of your authority.  However, using your authority to gain influence is often seen as an abuse of your power.

Huh?  Let’s unpack that. We all know the leader who says ‘do it because I’m the boss and I say so’ or the parent who might say ‘do it or there will be consequences’.  In both cases, the individual has the authority, but is frustrated by their lack of interpersonal influence so they are relying on negative forms of power to get what they want.  Authority without influence often lends itself to negative power-play. Conversely, influence without authority is often gained through positive power-play.

The humble engineer who is respected for their expertise – when they speak, people listen? The receptionist with all the relationships and their finger on the pulse?  These are individuals with no formal authority, but plenty of influence.  They are increasingly valued by change managers, and these are behaviours that are increasingly prized as teams become more self-managing.

As a result, power does tend to be concentrated on a select few individuals.  And you can be one of them by being a little more deliberate about your influence, and a little precise about your use of power.

French and Raven identified 6 sources of leadership power, emphasising that all leaders have access to power, but they often fail to recognise they’ve got it, and as a result they fail to use it.  The forms of power they identified are:

  1. Coercive: the threat of punishment to enforce behaviour
  2. Reward: the use of reward to motivate behaviour
  3. Legitimate: leveraging hierarchy or social / legal contracts to obligate behaviours
  4. Referent: eg a social influencer that others admire and wish to emulate
  5. Expert: the most common form of power in the workplace
  6. Information: using information to influence, such as media

Identifying and developing your own power makes you a more effective influencer, and a more effective leader.

The golden rules to power-play are:

  1. Develop your network and relationships – this will enhance your ability to build referent and informational power.
  2. Be generous with your power – share information and offer expertise, reward widely and often, and use your influence for others.
  3. Beware misuse of power – if you make any of this about you, use coercion or withhold other forms of power (such as information or referent), you’ll be seen as abusing your power.
  4. Position doesn’t always mean power, so use your legitimate power carefully – underplayed and you’re missing an opportunity, overplayed and it’ll undermine your influence.

Power-play can help you gain influence beyond the scope of your authority which helps you to have more impact in your role and more influence across your organisation. It’s not a bad thing.

Rebecca Houghton is the author of Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership

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