3.3. Understanding Sources of Power
One of the most useful things you can do in a political environment is take time to understand the sources of power. In this section, we'll look at the basics and you can use this knowledge to assess your own organization. You'll find that once you understand the sources of power, you're well on your way toward having the knowledge and tools you need to work effectively in a political environment. Let's look at these sources of power:
3.3.1. Positional Power
The most commonly recognized source of power is positional or organizational power. Your boss has power over you because he or she is your boss. The organization bestows upon each position a certain amount of organizational authority. A person's position provides a set of responsibilities, access to information, and access to resources. The position also provides a certain amount of authority to make change, to act, and to direct the actions of others. If you recall our earlier definition of power, it is the ability to enact change or to get things done. Thus, one's position in the organization comes with a certain amount of built-in power.
However, there are additional elements to positional power that are important to recognize. These are:
As you can imagine, someone who is very critical to an outcome is more powerful that one who is not. If a particular engineer or software architect is key to a project's success, that person has more power than a peer who is not key to a project's success.
One whose position is closely connected to the company's priorities will have more power than someone in a position that is not aligned with priorities. For instance, if the company's major focus is to improve efficiency and your IT group comes up with a series of initiatives aimed at improving not only IT efficiency, but corporate productivity as well, you'll have more power and influence. Conversely, if you're working on a project that is highly innovative, but no one is sure yet if it will work or if it will improve efficiency, the project could easily run into political interference if the current focus is on efficiency.
Another element of positional power is the position's visibility within the organization. The more visible a position is in a company, the more power it typically holds. Visibility is often part of how people get promoted in companies. Visibility can come from the position itself or from performance within the position (see the section entitled, "Performance Power"). Visible positions may always be visible, as many executive positions are, or they may be visible for a certain period of time. Accountants are highly visible during the budget development cycle. An IT project manager may be highly visible during the design, implementation, and management of a key IT initiative. Working on cross-functional teams is often a way to gain some visibility in the organization and can be a good way to improve your career progress.
Finally, the amount of flexibility or discretion in your position also generally correlates directly to the amount of power the position holds. Most managers have a certain amount of flexibility or discretion designed into their jobs. Back in the 1980's there was a movement toward empowering employeesto give them more flexibility or discretion. If you've ever called your credit card company to dispute something on your statement, you've probably experienced folks who have almost no flexibility or discretion in their positions. On the contrary, companies known for the great service they provide, including Nordstrom, Federal Express, LLBean, and ShopNatural, among others, all empower their service staff to make decisions. They give them the flexibility and discretion needed to resolve all but the most difficult customer service problems. These folks do have power and the teams are more productive as a result (you'll read more about the benefits of sharing power later in this chapter).
These additional components of positional power are important because it helps us understand why some positions are (or appear to be) more powerful than others. Positional power also comes from the fact that people in those positions often have access to information and resources that others do not. This leads us to the next two major sources of power in an organization.
3.3.2. Information Power
Information is power in most companies. It is often, but not always, tied directly to position. The more we know, the more we are able to work effectively in an organization. There are all kinds of information in organizations and almost all of it can be useful. Knowing who's preparing a key client presentation, knowing the current quarter's financial results, knowing who the boss is looking at for the next big project, knowing when the next round of budget cuts is coming, and so on, are all types of information that can provide power in an organization. Here are two examples. Purchasers for a company have information about suppliers, order status, or availability that others within the organization may need. An administrative assistant for an executive has informational power because he or she knows the executive's schedule and can grant or deny access or information. In these cases, these positions have access to needed information and this bestows upon the person in that position a certain amount of power.
Information power, of course, is not absolute. Information tends to get stale pretty quickly these days, so information power is often time-sensitive. If you know that the boss is about to approve a budget for a new project, that might provide some measure of power until your boss announces it. Other types of information power are less transitory. If you're part of a cross-functional team that meets monthly to discuss a particular corporate initiative, you have information that is not generally available to others in the company, even if a meeting summary is distributed.
It's important to understand the nature of information power because information flow is often used in political maneuvers. Sometimes information is withheld in order to make others less informed and therefore more vulnerable to misinformation or manipulation. Sometimes misinformation is disseminated in order to make others look bad or to throw others off the track. Unfortunately, these negative aspects of information power are used in organizations, which is why it's important to understand this source of power so you can use it in a positive, beneficial manner and counteract those who might try to use it for lesser purposes.
3.3.3. Resource Power
Most managerial positions have resource power because these positions have access to and control over organizational resources. These positions have the ability to grant or deny raises (money is one of the most important resources), promotions, key assignments, excused absences, and work assignments. Non-managers may also have resource powerthe clerk responsible for purchasing office supplies, the administrative assistant responsible for submitting reimbursement requests, the purchaser who can get special deals from a vendorall of these people have resource power to some degree or another. As with other forms of power, misuse of this source of power can lead to problems. If your key vendor's invoices are being held up or if your ability to purchase spare computer parts is limited by a purchasing clerk, your ability to get your job done effectively can be diminished. If this is the case, you may try to determine what you can do to convince the person with resource power to use their power to your benefit. Later in this chapter, we'll discuss methods of influence and ways you can negotiate with this person to get better access to needed resources (hint: this typically involves giving something the other party needs in exchange for getting what you need).
3.3.4. Expertise Power
Expertise is the specialized knowledge someone has, whether it was gained through experience, training, or formal education. Clearly, someone with needed expertise has a certain amount of power. The IT technician who knows how to fix your e-mail problem has power when your e-mail goes down. The copier technician is in a powerful position when the copier jams on copy 125 of 800. Financial analysts have a lot of power around budget time. Notice that few sources of power are fixedthey are relative to many other factors. The copier technician may have power when the copier jams but has very little power if there are five other suitable copiers nearby or a copy shop on the corner next to your office.
One important thing to note about the power that comes from expertise is that it is often the only power a new hire has. He or she does not have a network of relationships upon which to rely, so he or she probably doesn't have information or resource power. This is good to understand because a new hire must leverage his or her expertise in order to gain other forms of power within the organization, so you may see someone new to the company overusing his or her expertise power. Overuse of this power can cause someone to come off as an overbearing "know-it-all."As with other forms of power, the overuse or over-reliance on this form of power can have an opposite effect. Instead of respecting the expert, people in the organization may come to ignore or shun that person because he or she is aggressively asserting his or her expertise and perhaps not allowing adequate room for discussion, dissention, and team input.
3.3.5. Performance Power
Performance power is just as you might expectyou can derive a certain amount of power from turning in exceptional results. A track record of outstanding performance can give you the ability to influence not only your own future, but that of the project, department, or company. For instance, you might be asked to participate in an innovative new project or you might be asked your opinion on a variety of topics. Strong performance also enhances your reputation with peers and perhaps others outside your direct sphere of influence as well. Just as people typically enjoy working for a powerful boss, people also enjoy associating with top performers. This inclination to view strong performers in a positive light is the source of performance power and influence.
The downside of performance power is similar to expertise power. If you perform above and beyond normal expectations on a consistent basis, you may be threatening to some people, especially poorer performers. It's possible you don't need to be concerned with poor performers, but what if that person is your manager? Then your outstanding results might only serve, by contrast, to highlight the poor or mediocre job your manager is turning in and this could be a problem. Most of the time, however, when you deliver outstanding results, it's not only good results for the company, but for you as well.
3.3.6. Personal Traits Power
You might call this personality power or personal attraction power, but whatever term you use, it has to do with personal traits that provide power within an organization. The first that might come to mind is physical appearance. An interesting note about looks is that it is true that "good looking" people tend to get more breaks and opportunities, but people who are "too good looking" are often seen as less intelligent. Fair or not, these are biases that impact personal power. How one dresses is also part of personal traits and is related to personal power. Again, there are some interesting dichotomies here. If you dress "above" your position, you're more likely to be considered for a promotion, but less likely to be accepted by your peers. If you dress impeccably, whether your company requires casual or formal business attire, you may be seen as less capable. The thought is that people who are "too well groomed" are less intelligent or less capable. If you consistently dress in a manner that is outside the norms for your company, you may be seen as less of a team player. For instance, if you work at a company where jeans and t-shirts are the norm and you consistently wear a suit, you may be seen as snobbish, not a team player, or someone only interested in moving up the ladder. This can work against you. However, if the dress code is jeans and a t-shirt and you wear khakis and a polo shirt, you're more likely to be viewed as a part of the team, even if you stand out in a positive way. The obvious statements also hold true. If you dress "below" your position, your work may be viewed in a more negative light. If you consistently dress below company standards, you may have trouble getting your work to be taken seriously or to be judged fairly. It's quite relative to the norms of your company or department.
Beyond the physical characteristics, there are several key attributes that bestow personal power to individuals. Research indicates that there are behaviors and traits that we associate with "likeability" and the more likeable someone is, the more personal power he or she has. Some of the traits that may cause us to like someone are honesty, acceptance, supportiveness, similarity of values, and willingness to endure costs for the relationship. People who are seen as likeable are judged to be more effective speakers and they are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt in a performance appraisal. So, it may literally pay to be nice.
There is a downside to being too likable or too nice and that is the danger of being perceived as gullible or naïve. While being likeable is a positive trait and can be the source of a certain amount of power, it must be balanced with getting the job done. As a manager, being likeable is tricky. On the one hand, if your boss or others in the organization consider you to be likeable, you can derive a certain amount of power and influence from that. On the other hand, as a manager, it's not your job to be liked. New managers often are torn because they want their team to like them, but they often find that things like reprimanding and managing run contrary to being liked. It is a fine balance, but as a manager, you can do your job effectively and still have you staff like you. Just don't get trapped into being a manager who is well-liked first and effective second. This holds true for IT project managers as well.