The Four Types of Power in the Workplace

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

When we talk about power in the workplace, what comes to mind? For some, you might have a vision of someone wearing a business suit sitting behind a big desk. For others, you might think about titles, paychecks, or how many people report to you. Traditionally power has often been viewed through the lens of dominance and control. 

If we use a DEI lens to define power, here’s how we think about it: power is the ability to control or direct change. It’s the ability to make choices. Power indicates social, political, and cultural influence and access. If we consider who typically holds power in the workplace, we can see that oftentimes, privilege confers power. As our understanding of power evolves, we can start to differentiate between different forms and types of power, which will help us better understand how it manifests. Let’s review four distinct types of power:

Power Over

Many people default to thinking about this type of power when we start to discuss ‘power.’ This power is built on force, coercion, domination, and control. ‘Power over’ works from a framework of fear and scarcity. This kind of power is a finite resource. It can only be exercised by a small number of people and isn’t accessible to most. As such, this kind of power typically appears in hierarchies, where those who hold some authority dictate terms for those who report to them. This kind of power can effectively achieve short-term goals, but it tends to breed resentment and resistance and can perpetuate inequalities. It creates a dynamic of oppressor and oppressed. 

Power With

This type of power is inherently collaborative and is built on respect, cooperation, and support. ‘Power with’ is based on the understanding that decisions and action steps can be beneficial and stronger when made as a group. This kind of collective action highlights solidarity as opposed to domination. ‘Power with’ provides individuals with a voice in decision-making processes and can be a strong foundation upon which to challenge oppressive structures.

Power To

‘Power to’ refers to the potential that each of us has to create new possibilities, change, and take action without being domineering in our relationships. It focuses on individual agency, autonomy, and self-determination. Leveraging this type of power means recognizing that each person possesses inherent potential and can shape their destiny. ‘Power to’ also involves providing people with the resources, skills, and opportunities they need to fully realize their potential. 

Power Within

‘Power within’ indicates having a sense of your own capacity, potential, and self-worth. This understanding helps us realize our ‘power to’ and ‘power with.’ This type of power is possibly the most transformative of all. ‘Power within’ is about cultivating a sense of confidence, resilience, and agency. Developing this type of power means cultivating your emotional intelligence and mindfulness and exploring your connections to your purpose. Leveraging this power enables you to lead with integrity, compassion, and empathy. 

By considering these different types of power and how we show up in spaces with them at different times, we can start to understand what types of power are accessible to us and what possible harm or good we may be creating. We can also better understand what power types we may want or need to develop. As an inclusive leader, your power style is an important element to consider when considering how you show up at work and how you want to use your power to achieve your goals.