7 Ways to Gain Power at Work

You may not believe you have any power, but you do. You have more than you think.

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People love power. Not because people are evil, but because power means survival. Every human relationship involves power in some way, and we are all hardwired to gravitate to, and want, power. Even you.

[See 21 secrets to getting a job now.]

In most modern people’s lives, nowhere is power more obvious and more important than in the workplace. You may not believe you have any power at work, but you do. You have more power than you think.

Key to identifying the source of your power is to recognize that there’s more than one kind. Check out these seven different types of workplace power:

1. Power based on who you know. If you have good interpersonal skills and strong networks, you have power. You are a connector, knowing who to introduce to whom, and you are a resource, knowing where to go for advice and help. This is a power that can grow exponentially, because the more people you know, the more people will want to know you.

[See 39 ways to annoy your coworkers.]

2. Power based on what you know. A very solid way to earn respect and influence at work is to be expert in something. The most knowledgeable and competent person in the workplace—the one who knows how things work and how to fix them when they don’t—is a very powerful person.

3. Power based on love. Do people want to be with you and do things for you just because they like you? This is one of the most powerful sources of power. It's called “referent” power. Referent power is a big responsibility because it’s based on charisma and charisma is usually inborn—you didn’t do anything to earn it and you may even start to think you deserve it. But if you combine it with, say, expertise power, it can take you far.

4. Power based on admiration. Both this power and “referent” power inspire loyalty but the difference here is that this one you can earn. If you have an amazing work ethic, if you are responsible, reliable, and consistent, if you treat colleagues with dignity and respect, people are going to start finding that they trust you. They will look up to you and listen to what you say and want to be like you. That’s power, baby.

[See more of Karen Burns' advice at U.S.News Careers.]

5. Power based on fear. You have this kind of power when you’re in a position to punish others if they don’t do what you want. But beware! Fear-based power can oh-so-easily twist around and bite you in the behind. In fact, this power is usually best used by not using it (“speak softly and carry a big stick”).

6. Power based on wealth. People who possess what others want can find themselves with more power than they’re able to handle. Do you set the schedule, control access to supplies, make job assignments? You are rich! But remember—this power has nothing to do with you. It goes away the minute you are no longer in a position to bestow largess.

7. Power based on position. This is the most obvious kind of power—you have it because the word “manager” is in your job title. But while it tends to come with the territory, you still do need to work for it. The bad boss quickly loses influence, leverage, and respect. True and lasting power comes from being a leader worthy of esteem and admiration.

Needless to say, power tends to be addictive and is very easy to abuse. We all know people who fall into this trap. You don’t want to be one of those because abusing power is a sign of weakness (it’s the insecure people who wield their power unwisely). Not only that, the more power is abused, the more ineffective it becomes.

Power contributes to your sense of well-being and to your continued state as an employed person, not to mention your dignity and self-respect. No matter what your role, you are entitled to your fair portion of power. So consider how each of these powers might apply to you and—most of all—how you could use them for “good.”

Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.


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