Successful people know that there are six kinds of power that you can earn in an organization and only a few of them are given by the company.
What kind of power do you have in your organization? And by that I mean can you get other people to do what you want them to? While it’s become somewhat out of style to talk about whether someone has “power” or not, the truth is that there are people using power to get things done. And if you aren’t, you might be missing out. Do you find yourself not getting promoted or do you fail to get resources for the projects you’re most interested in pursuing? If so, you might need to rethink how people earn power in your organizations while also finding ways to earn more power of your own.
It’s like what Warren Buffet has reportedly said: “If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
It turns out that there are six kinds of power that you can earn in an organization – three that are formal and three that are informal or personal. The original work on this topic was done by social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven in 1959.
Types of Formal Power
- Coercive Power.
When most people think of power, they think about the kind of power that comes from being the boss, where you can get people to do what you want them to because quite simply you can fire them. This power is driven by fear of consequences and of what the person with the coercive power can do to you if you disobey. The truth is that most people don’t like being coerced – which is why you don’t see too many successful dictators over the long run.
- Reward Power.
Another kind of power comes from someone’s ability to reward you with things – like bonus money, trips, a company car or a fancy office. When someone has the ability to reward you, you might be willing to do something they want in order to earn those awards like, for instance, meeting your sales quota.
- Positional Power.
This kind of power results directly from your title or position in the organizational hierarchy. Similar to coercive power, this is where someone respects the position a request is coming from. If you are the manager of engineering, for example, you will defer to the VP of engineering because their position carries more weight than yours. It’s like when people say they may not like the person in the job, but they respect the position.
Types of Informal Power
- Expert Power.
This kind of power is granted to people who are seen as experts due to their skills, experience, and knowledge. They make themselves into the “go-to” person for particular issues or topics – even if they don’t necessarily have a high position in the hierarchy. Imagine someone like a PhD who, because they know everything about a particular subject, earns the respect of their peers as a direct result of that knowledge.
- Referent Power.
Have you ever seen a situation where a new manager comes on board but it’s his or her admin who has worked at the company forever who everyone goes to for advice? This is what I call referent power, which refers to anyone who has earned respect because they have deep organization knowledge. They don’t earn any power due to their title, rather it’s their ability to hand out good advice or come up with solutions based on their deep organizational knowledge that gives them considerable sway.
- Networking Power.
The final source of power that is also often the most overlooked is networking power, which is earned by people who have invested in growing broad and extensive personal and professional networks. These people are the ones who, when you go to them with a problem or an opportunity, know exactly who to put you in touch with to get you the information or advice you are looking for. Not only do they have the connections, they also seem to have a photographic memory capable of remembering what the strengths and weaknesses are of everyone in their network. This is a huge source of power and it’s the same principle that many organizations are built on.
When it comes to building your own long-term career, think about what kind of power you can earn. The smart path, especially if you are early in your career, is to focus first on building up your sources of informal power like by establishing expertise or building a social network. Then you can earn more formal power from your organization over time.