Exploring Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Updated: Apr 27

What exactly is power? Power is both the ability to act in a particular way freely (self-determination), and the ability to direct or influence the behavior of others (governance). It is to be seen, heard, and valued for your perspectives and opinions.

The truth is, despite org charts and management policies, most individuals don't really understand what gives us power and the different ways we can use that power in the workplace. So let's break down some of these types of power to better understand what dynamics exist within a team.

What Gives Us Power?

Formal vs. Informal

Formal power is the power designated by official titles, or “big L” Leadership. This positional power is what is most often recognized in companies, but is only one aspect of power that plays out within a team.

Informal power is the power that we hold that is not immediately visible or officially assigned. While most managers will easily acknowledge formal power, informal power dynamics can be equally if not more challenging in the workplace. There are four main types of informal power:

  1. Expertise power is that power you gain from experience, training and study that may give additional weight to your opinion or perspective. Deferring to those with seniority is a common manifestation of expertise power.

  2. Relational power is all about “who you know.” Sometimes called referent power, this power is gained from connections with others and with keeping track of information tied to these relationships. This information gives individuals the ability to leverage strengths and weaknesses of others, to get buy-in on ideas and push forward agendas.

  3. Systemic power refers to one group’s ability to establish and directly benefit from institutions, laws, customs, and policies, and to access resources and decision-makers. Essentially it is to establish the standard by which everyone else abides. These customs become so deeply entrenched in society that we assume that, “it’s just the way that things are done” or that it’s the “right” or “best” way. Individual's who are from this group benefit from systemic power whether or not they are aware of it.

  4. Majority power has to do with being surrounded by those from a similar community or identity. This could be a socio-political identity like race or gender, or it could be based on shared history/experience/training. Whereas systemic power travels with you wherever you go, majority power is situational.

The presence of power dynamics on a team means that certain voices may be heard more than others. So even when leaders directly ask for feedback or different perspectives, many individuals may not feel comfortable providing honest responses.

Our own sense of power changes depending on context. Each of us have different things that give us power or that restrict our power, whether or not we are aware of it. The next question is what do we do with power once we become aware of it?

How Do We Use Power?

Power Over (coercive) vs. Power With (integrative)

While we cannot control what gives us power as individuals, we can control how we use that power. Power over, or coercive power occurs when power is used to control another person or group. It is what is found in most traditional hierarchies and societies, where those who have the most power are those who set the standards, policies, and processes for others to comply.

Power with is both relational and integrative. It leverages the power we have to provide space and empower others to offer their perspectives, insights and experiences. It dismantles traditional hierarchies and looks to work collaboratively and highlight the talents and skills of the group.

It can be useful to reflect on our own unearned power and privilege as moments where we stand as gatekeepers and decision-makers for others. Then ask ourselves how we can use that opportunity to bring others into dialogue.

As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.

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