Power is a taboo topic. ‘Power corrupts’, you mutter. But powerlessness also corrupts. If you don’t have the power to get others to do what you want them to do willingly, you have to become aggressive and bullying. Recent geopolitical events illustrate this.
Here we explore the nature of power, and consider how to strengthen the power of the HR function.
As a manager, you need power if you want to get things done. HR managers, however, are often outgunned by other functions. When finance and marketing present a case to the board, they have compelling slides showing costs and sales, revenues and profitability.
The HR case usually relies on culture, values, morale, engagement; vague concepts that are hard to quantify. The finance case gets accepted with little or no discussion. The HR proposal triggers an argument which risks getting rejected or watered down.
Power: What is it?
Power is the ability to get other people to do what you want them to do. In the 1950s, two American researchers, John French and Bertram Raven, famously identified five bases of power.
You can persuade others through reward (monetary, symbolic) or coercion (threat, punishment). Managers can use their formal status or legitimate power.
People will comply with those who they believe have expert knowledge. Referent power relies on the force of your personality.This list is not exhaustive.
There are other power bases, such as information, and alliances. In an environment with high management turnover, managers who stick around and build relationships develop staying power; others follow them because they are well-known, consistent, and trusted.
The field of international relations introduced the concept of ‘soft power’: the ability to get other people to think the way you do, and to want what you want. This is also relevant to management. Use your empathy and understanding rather than throwing your weight around.
Soft power may be less tangible, but can be more sustainable as others ‘own’ the outcomes that you want. Have you seen soft power in use? How effective was that?
The exercise of power is not always seen as negative. Punishment is usually disliked, but colleagues will welcome the fact that you discipline a staff member who is not pulling their weight.
Imposing your superior knowledge on others is seen as oppressive, but using your expertise to help others solve a challenging problem will be appreciated. Power exercised judiciously can be constructive and seen as positive.
The point is – there are many power bases. You don’t need to have all of these. In addition, the power that you have is not static. You can strengthen your power in various ways.
Why do you need power?
You need power if you want to make things happen and get things done. You also need power to stop others implementing harmful proposals.
Finally, you need power in order to build your reputation; you grow your power by being seen to make things happen.
How do you get power?
Your power comes from a combination of personal and organizational sources.
Going back to French and Raven, expert and referent power rely on your individual qualities; knowledge, experience, personality.
Reward, coercion, and legitimate power derive from your role in the organization and access to resources. Your position also affects your access to information, and to networks through which you can build alliances.
Seniority gives you legitimate power, but this does not necessarily mean that your other power bases are strong.
Carry out a personal power base assessment:
- In which areas do you have strong power?
- How can you increase your power and strengthen your influence?
We worked with a CEO who had strong legitimate, reward, and information power. This helped to design strategies to ensure a smooth organizational change.
He was the source of key information, publicized through progress meetings. He made a point of being visible, with regular employee meetings, recognizing and rewarding behaviors key to the change.
There are several strategies that you can use to strengthen a weak power base. Give (reward) and withhold (punish) praise consistently and appropriately. Develop and display specialist expertise in areas that are key to the success of the business.
If you cannot move into a more senior role, consider ways in which you can extend the scope of your current responsibility; accept business-critical assignments, take over key tasks that are not being done well by other departments.
Also, develop your own database of information critical to corporate strategy and make friends and form alliances with other powerful individuals and groups.
In the past, HR relied on soft, subjective, qualitative information to support policy and practice. This has changed with the development of big data and HR analytics.
With the availability of large amounts of work-related data, it is possible to analyze the drivers of employee behavior and explore links to performance. HR proposals can be based on hard, objective, quantitative data.
By measuring the impact on organizational effectiveness, HR becomes a ‘hard-edged’ function and a powerful business partner. HR analytics will increase the power and influence of HR in the boardroom.
How should you use power?
It perhaps goes without saying that you should use your power in ways that visibly benefit the business. You don’t have to use power directly for personal gain.
If you are known as someone who makes things happen and get things done, this strengthens your reputation – and your power.
How personally to project power
Understanding power helps us assess the power of others, and let others know how powerful we are.
Power tells are the clues that show how powerful someone is – or how powerful they want to be. The power tells of dominant individuals include:
- open postures
- invasive hand gestures
- smiling less
- leaning back
- speaking first
- dominating the conversation
- looking away while speaking
- interrupting others.
Signals that suggest a submissive attitude include modifying your speech to sound like the other person, hesitation (‘ums’ and ‘ers’), closed postures, blushing and coughing, and self-comfort gestures such as clasping your hands, and touching your face and hair.
Want to feel and behave like a more powerful person? Try the simple technique of power priming.
To become power-primed, think of a time when you had power over others, and remember how that felt. (You can also be powerless-primed, by thinking of a time when you lacked power.)
In one study, people who were asked to hold a power posture (hands on hips, feet apart) for a short time before a job interview were more likely to be offered the job than those who had been asked to sit in a ‘weak’ posture, hunched, holding their neck, with legs crossed.
Serena Williams was often seen wearing headphones when she walked onto the tennis court; she was listening to power anthems. Power priming makes you feel more confident and persuasive, and less stressed.
One way to assess the power that you and others have is to work with colleagues to chart a stakeholder diagram for each major initiative you are engaged in. This will help you to identify major power strengths and weakness.
You can then consider actions to address weaknesses and strengthen favorable areas.
Points for reflection to strengthen the power and influence of HR
- Power is a fact of organizational life. You need to know where it lies and how it works.
- Where are your power strengths? How can you increase your power and influence?
- Understanding power can help you to navigate organizational uncertainty as the pace and scale of change accelerate.
- How does your use of power affect your reputation? Will hard power put your reputation at risk? Could the use of soft power have a more beneficial effect on your reputation?
HR has traditionally been less powerful than other functions in the organization. Big data can help to change that as HR becomes a business partner on an equal basis with other functions.
There is much that the function, and individual managers, can do to strengthen the power and influence of HR. Given the current economic climate, and labor market conditions, that influence is needed more than ever.
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