Positional Power

I’m going to open up this post by thinking about where a powerful person might derive their power from. (That’s almost a tongue twister!) In doing this I’m hoping to build a platform for a definition of powerful that embraces “all”. As a result my definition of what it means to be powerful cannot mean that you have to be 30 years old, rich, white and male! 

Twice during my career in the IT industry I worked for global organisations that were home to many people whose assessment of power was based entirely on the organisation chart. When meeting someone new, the first two things they would want to know were: who is your boss? and, how many people work for you? What they were really asking is: how powerful are you? This information allowed them to create a power map of the room, a hierarchy of the most powerful person to the least.

As an aside one of the tell tale signs of an organisation where power is based on position is the prevalence of organisation charts in presentations and how and when those charts appear.

Back to the power map. Knowing who was more powerful than you and knowing who was less powerful allowed you to navigate your way through any discussion based on the following rules:

• Be nice to the people who are more powerful than you.

• Don’t worry about upsetting the people less powerful than you.

• Make sure you get the powerful people on your side. (Generally the best way to do this is take them out for lunch.)

• If the powerful people won’t support you and you want to win, then give up on getting them to agree with you and simply agree with them.

And that folks is what I think you might call politics. You see a culture where power is based on position creates an environment in which the political spirit thrives because it is the only way the less powerful can become more powerful, and the powerful stay powerful.

Needless to say I didn’t really enjoy working in those environments except that it gave me the opportunity to break the rules by:

• Being nice to everyone especially the ones supposedly less powerful than me.

• Not worrying about upsetting the people supposedly more powerful than me.

• Always forgetting to add that organisation chart slide to my presentation.

• Thinking about the waistlines of the powerful people by expecting them to agree to do what is right without the incentive of lunch.

• Leaving the organisation when eventually the only option was to join the powerful people in preserving the status quo (Latin for the mess they were in).

As you can tell I’m not a big fan of cultures where power is based on position. There are things leaders and followers can do to help guard against this but that’s another post!

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant