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Sources of Power for Becoming More Powerful at Work

What researchers report on personal and relational sources of power at work.

Key points

  • One can become more powerful at work by recognizing and leveraging certain personal and relational sources of power.
  • Personal sources of power at work include surface-level characteristics (e.g., age) and personality factors (e.g., self-monitoring).
  • Relational power sources at work include social networks, group unity, political skill, and impression management.
Source: Hans/Pixabay

How do we become more powerful at work? In this post, I discuss personal and relational sources of power at work. The present writing is a continuation of my previous post on the meaning and nature of power—both being summaries of a recent paper in press in Organizational Dynamics.

Personal Sources of Power at Work

A variety of “surface level” characteristics (e.g., gender, age, race) are associated with power at work. For instance, men often have more power than women. And those with greater seniority or experience tend to have more power than those with less.

Some less obvious or “deep-level” characteristics are also associated with power. These comprise self-monitoring, proactive personality, and internal locus of control. These characteristics and suggestions for people high or low on the particular trait are described below.

Self-monitoring: High self-monitors pay close attention to the interpersonal needs of coworkers and are good at reading social cues. They are adaptive and often successful at work, though they may also come across as inauthentic (“chameleon-like”). In contrast, low self-monitors act more genuinely (i.e. based on their feelings and values), but their behaviors do not always seem professional or help them get promotions.

Suggestions: High self-monitors likely benefit from practicing professional behaviors until these behaviors feel more genuine, whereas low self-monitors could benefit from paying more attention to their surroundings, allying with people who share their values, and asking for feedback about appropriate behavior.

Proactive personality: An employee who is proactive (e.g., shows initiative and perseverance), compared to a reactionary or passive employee, is more likely to be valued at work.

Suggestions: To reduce the likelihood that the proactivity/leadership shown by proactive workers is perceived as threatening by leaders or supervisors, proactive workers need to focus less on themselves and more on helping coworkers. Passive employees, in contrast, should try to be more proactive if given an opportunity to show initiative. To put themselves in the right frame of mind, passive individuals could spend a few minutes writing about their ambitions (“promotion mindset”), think back to a time when they had power over another (“powerful mindset”), or recall a time they felt excited (“happy mindset”).

Internal locus of control: Employees with an internal locus of control believe themselves to be in control of their environment. They are active, task-focused, and problem solvers. Those with an external locus of control, in contrast, attribute results to chance or fate. They work better in structured work environments—where compliance is valued more highly than independent thinking and action.

Suggestions: Employees with an internal locus of control need to explore areas beyond their control, like technological advancements, that nevertheless affect their work, so they can plan and prepare for change. And people with an external locus of control need to work on taking responsibility in situations where they typically blame others or circumstances.

Relational Sources of Power at Work

Relational sources of power include political skills, impression management, social networks, and group unity.

Political skill. Politically skilled individuals are socially perceptive and diplomatic. They know how to appear sincere, build alliances, and influence coworkers.

Suggestions: Politically unskilled employees must learn how to establish rapport and communicate more effectively. Politically skilled individuals, in contrast, need to be mindful of not appearing fake.

Impression management. Impression management tactics include flattery, self-promotion, intimidation, supplication, and exemplification and self-sacrifice.

Suggestions: For individuals inexperienced in impression management, a good first step is to practice appearing more in control (i.e. pretending things are going as planned). This can convince others one is indeed in control and powerful. Individuals already skilled in impression management should instead “mask” the unpleasant aspects of these impression management strategies (e.g., timely self-promotion vs. obnoxious bragging). This is particularly important for the more negative tactics, like supplication and intimidation.

Social network. A good social network provides useful information, opportunities, and the workforce needed to accomplish goals efficiently. It also provides social support when things are not going well.

Suggestions: Those with a poor social network need to actively build connections useful for different purposes (e.g., personal, operational, strategic). Those with a good social network should occupy a more central position, strengthen their connections, try to include different types of people in their network, and consider awakening dormant ties (e.g., ties with former teachers) to gain new and richer perspectives.

Group unity. Strongly united groups are often more influential than loosely formed groups or parties with internal divisions (e.g., by sex, ethnicity, politics).

Suggestions: To counter internal divisions and increase unity, consider emphasizing similarities and shared goals, selecting work assignments that encourage employees from different “cliques” to work together, and bringing into focus an external source of conflict and a “common enemy” (e.g., competition with another company).

Source: phmaxiestevez/Pixabay

Recommendations for Becoming More Powerful at Work

  1. Realize you are already engaged in power games at work. Examine how powerful you are and how powerful you feel in the workplace. If you do not know how powerful you are, ask the opinions of people you respect and trust. If you feel powerless or desire more power, identify your sources of power and the ease of access to these sources of power.
  2. When examining your sources of power, do not focus on surface factors (e.g., age), which you cannot change, but on personality factors you could modify (e.g., passivity).
  3. Work on nurturing your relational bases of power. For example, how good are you at impression management? How central is your position in your social network? Remember, you can ameliorate your position and expand your social network by practicing or improving your impression management and political skills.
  4. Keep in mind power is dynamic (see my previous article). While this can be worrisome to people high on the workplace hierarchy (e.g., bosses, CEOs), the fluid nature of power means opportunities exist for any ambitious person desiring to move through the ranks.