How different types of power impact you and others at work – Part 1

In Blog, Diversity & Inclusion by Rachel Murray

When we think about power at work, it’s easy to get caught up in the traditional forms of power, for example the type of power your boss might hold, or the power that someone who runs the company possesses.  It’s worth noting that we all have different forms of power in different situations.  As always, we’ll focus specifically on workplace power in this post. In Nicole Lipkin’s book What Keeps Leaders Up at Night, she covers seven types of power and how they play out. In this two-part series, we’ll explore each type and how it impacts your experiences at work. You might be surprised to know that you have some power you never thought of before. It’s also worth noting that you can use your power for good. We’ll provide some examples below.

  • Legitimate Power: This type of power is the one we’re most familiar with in the business world, and some might refer to it as the ‘classic’ type of power. A person who is higher up the ladder than someone else is considered to have legitimate power. That means managers over individual contributors, C-level over directors, etc. Those with legitimate power are more easily able to make things happen when exercising their power. Someone with legitimate power can easily abuse it. We’ve seen a lot of this covered in the news lately, but we also see ‘bad bosses’ reflected in pop culture. From films like Office Space to Wall Street to The Devil Wears Prada, there’s no shortage of examples of bad bosses. But we can easily flip the narrative, too. Hidden Figures showed how a manager (Kevin Costner’s character) can make change by using their legitimate power. One could also argue that Albus Dumbledore made a great boss as well, risking everything to defend what is good and right. While neither was perfect, they used their power for good. If you’re someone with legitimate power, you can have an enormous impact in moving the needle on diversity and inclusion by using your voice to have a positive impact.

  • Coercive Power: We like to call this “not cool” power. This type of power is exercised when someone is being forceful and aggressive. A classic example is when someone threatens to fire an employee if they don’t get results or do what they’d promised. This can also come across as bullying. There’s pretty much only bad examples of this type of power, and when you see it or are experience it, it might be worth countering this power with one of the others listed here.

  • Expert Power: Expert power comes from having a high level of expertise on a particular subject. An example of when expert power occurs is when a group of people are meeting on a certain topic; the person with the greatest amount of experience in that subject area tends to have the most authority and the most significant power within that meeting. If you have knowledge on a particular subject and others in the room don’t, consider how you are perceived. As the person with the expertise, you are able to come into particular situations with a level of authority others wouldn’t be. We see this play out in meetings, and where it gets tricky is when one person has expertise in one area, and another has power in another area. The person with the legitimate power might be the one to ‘break the tie’ by receiving information from the experts, and evaluating it. It’s worth noting that your expertise is just as valid as someone else’s, even though it’s easy to go down the path of “imposter syndrome”.

Take some time to consider your power. Does any of the above resonate with you, and if so, how have you experienced it? Are there things you might do differently at work? Our next post will explore four more types of power that are common in the workplace. Stay tuned!