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Exploring Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

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:

  1. 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.

  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. 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.

  4. Collective power has to do with being surrounded by those who share a common experience or values, or who come from a similar community or identity group. 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, collective 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.

To build power, we must notice it at every level. Learn them through