Updated: Nov 11
People have vastly different emotional responses to conversations around power. Though much DEI work is aimed at addressing coercive and oppressive power systems, we don't always take the time to define what is, how we acquire it, and what we do with it.
What exactly is power? Power is both our ability to choose our response to situations (the self-determination Viktor Frankl described), and our ability to direct or influence the behavior of others (governance). When we talk about power in equity we are talking about the right to be seen, heard, and valued for your perspectives and opinions. When viewed in this light power is a good thing. However, the disproportionate distribution of power and the exploitative or coercive use of power is where power becomes an oppressive force.
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 and how we can build power in more intentional and equitable ways.
What Gives Us Power?
Formal vs. Informal
Formal (Positional) power is the power designated by official titles, ranks, or positions. This positional power is what is most often identified in companies, but is only one aspect of power that plays out within a team.
Informal (Social) 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:
Experiential 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 or expertise is a common manifestation of this power.
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.
Cultural/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.
Circumstantial/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- it only exists in certain contexts. Move to a place where you are not the majority and it vanishes.
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 and access to 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. And though some of this power is attributed to us whether or not we wish it, there is a lot of power that we can build, for ourselves and with others.
The most important question, however, 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)
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. Sometimes this model is necessary (like having someone coding in the ER) and single voices may need to direct and guide the team. But it has limited uses and negative consequences when it is the only model used.
Power with, or distributive power 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, leveraging the talents and skills of the group. Here are a few examples of how we can create more opportunities for shared power:
build your team's experiential power by stepping back, avoiding micro-managing, and letting emerging leaders take on bigger responsibilities. This builds their own experiential power and increases their leadership skills.
build circumstantial power by providing space for affinity groups, committees, or mentorship opportunities, where people who have shared experiences can learn from one another and come together to advocate for their needs.
build relational power by cultivating authentic connection with an individual on your team who may have less positional or social power than you. When you have a strong relationship with a colleague, you are more likely to listen to and seek out their perspective. The best thing about relational power is that it is reciprocal- you both benefit from having increased trust and understanding with one another!
Do the self-reflection work. 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.