7 types of power in the workplace

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  • 1. 7 Types of Power in the Workplaceby Sharlyn Lauby on March 4, 2010There’s a quote by Margaret Thatcher that says, “Power is like being a lady…if you haveto tell people you are, you aren’t.” Personally, I find the study of power fascinating.Dictionary.com defines power as “a person or thing that possesses orexercises authority or influence”. So in essence when we use power; we’re utilizing ourauthority to get something.Everyone has power. Everyone. And, I don’t believe that power is a bad thing. Theissue becomes what kind of power a person has and how someone uses that power. Hereare some of the common types of power found in the workplace. • Coercive power is associated with people who are in a position to punish others. People fear the consequences of not doing what has been asked of them. • Connection power is based upon who you know. This person knows, and has the ear of, other powerful people within the organization. • Expert power comes from a person’s expertise (duh!). This is commonly a person with an acclaimed skill or accomplishment. • A person who has access to valuable or important information possesses informational power. • Legitimate power comes from the position a person holds. This is related to a person’s title and job responsibilities. You might also hear this referred to as positional power. • People who are well-liked and respected can have referent power. • Reward power is based upon a person’s ability to bestow rewards. Those rewards might come in the form of job assignments, schedules, pay or benefits.Now, stop being modest and thinking to yourself…I don’t have any power. As you cansee, there are lots of different ways power can manifest itself. And for that reason, it’simportant to realize that power exists in all of us. It’s also possible that you havedifferent kinds of power with different groups or situations.
  • 2. Now, the two biggest mistakes I see with people’s use ofpower revolve around (1) trying to use power they don’t have and (2) using the wrongkind of power to achieve results.To help you identify your ‘power zone’, take a moment and think about how you try toinfluence action from others. You could use the descriptions above as a pseudo self-assessment. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-5 in each of the different kinds of power. With1 being not at all characteristic of you and 5 being quite characteristic.This can be a (sorry for the pun) powerful exercise. If you’re honest with yourself, Ihope you’ll find the results helpful. Not only for the way you tend to use power but inthe way others use power with you.Characteristics of Nursing PowerIn responding to our opening question, "How do you define power?" the nurse leadersreflected on their own experiences and those of their nursing colleagues. They observedthat the power of the nurse lies in his or her knowledge and expertise related to thetechnical, analytical, and interpersonal domains of nursing practice. This expertise, theyobserved, is uniquely interwoven into a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort focusedsolely on the patients and families that the nurse and care team serve and with whom theypartner. The nursing profession as a whole, they said, establishes power through thepractice of individual nurses who are engaged in patient care, administrative leadership,teaching, and research. The actions, behaviors, and comportment of each nurse contributeto or diminish the collective power that the profession of nursing holds in society, withina given organization, and in practice.The nurse leaders observations regarding power underscored the power of individualnurses and highlighted how the practice of a single individual can impact patients andfamilies, organizations, interdisciplinary colleagues, and the entire nursing profession.Characteristics of a Powerful Professional PracticeThrough our conversations with nurse leaders, we identified eight characteristics ofpowerful nursing practice – practice in which the nurse acts powerfully on behalf of
  • 3. patients and families and is recognized as powerful by others. The eight characteristics ofpowerful nursing practice are listed in the Table and are described in more detail below. 1. Nurses with a powerful practice acknowledge their unique role in the provision of patient centered and family centered care. During our discussions, the nurse leaders observed that the nursing professions emphasis on partnering with and caring for patients and families distinguishes nurses from other health professionals and positions them to be extremely powerful. The power of clinical nurses is significantly enhanced by the therapeutic, interpersonal relationships nurses establish with patients and families and by a nurses expertise in relieving the burden of disease and helping patients and families cope with the continuum of health and illness. Nurses with a powerful practice, said the nurse leaders, recognize and readily acknowledge their unique contributions to patient care and realize that their relationships with patients and families put them in a position to influence the care delivery setting. "What is good for patients and families is good for nursing practice," observed one nurse leader. This view, she explained, aligns nurses with the major priority of health care institutions and positions them to advocate from the perspective of patients and families – i.e., nurses listen to what patients and families need and then base their advocacy efforts on the needs that are expressed. While their ability to partner with patients and families puts nurses in a very powerful position, it also implies significant responsibility, since it demands that nurses continually validate their perceptions about what patients and families are telling them and communicate this information to other members of the care team. 2. Nurses with a powerful practice commit to continuous learning through education, skill development, and evidence-based practice. All of the nurse leaders identified knowledge and expertise as an essential element of the nurses power base and underscored the importance of continuous learning. Nurses who are powerful, they said, continuously seek new knowledge and base their practice on evidence. The educational level of nurses was also viewed as an essential element of a powerful professional practice. The nurse leaders agreed that attaining a BSN is essential, and that more education generally leads to greater power. 3. Nurses with a powerful practice demonstrate professional comportment and recognize the critical nature of presence. The nurse leaders noted that the professional comportment of nurses – their behaviors and how they carry themselves – is a key component of nursing power. Openness, transparency, authenticity, honesty, and integrity are some of the characteristics that the nurse leaders associated with powerful nurses. The nurse leaders also commented that the way nurses use language, particularly how they refer to themselves, can enhance or detract from their professional
  • 4. image. Nurses in powerful practices consistently acknowledge their own professional status and that of others by using first and last names during introductions, and by avoiding phrases, such as "I am only a nurse," or "She is just a nurse," that diminish individual nurses and the profession of nursing as a whole. The nurse, said the nurse leaders, brings a unique skill set, knowledge, and perspective to the care team, executive table, research team, or faculty – a contribution that nurses, themselves, must not doubt since self-confidence is linked to power. That said, nurses must work to sustain their credibility by maintaining competency and remaining current in their practice area and by remembering that they are professionals who work with others to meet the best interests of the patient and family.4. Nurses with a powerful practice value collaboration and partner effectively with colleagues in nursing and other disciplines. Many of the nurse leaders cited the ability to collaborate with nursing colleagues and those outside of nursing as a hallmark of effective nursing leadership and a characteristic of powerful nursing practice. They noted that collaborating does not mean acquiescing or giving in. Nor does it mean competing or engaging in divisive actions and behaviors. Rather, it involves authentic, transparent discussion, debate, and deliberation and striving to reach consensus-driven outcomes. A powerful professional, said the nurse leaders, works well with others, is fair, and has opinions and perspectives that are "sought out" by others. Leading and participating on teams and partnering with others is essential to sound, expert nursing practice and is a critical element of a nurses power base.5. Nurses with a powerful practice position themselves to influence decisions and resource allocation. A number of the nurse leaders observed that powerful nurses typically position themselves to provide direction, input, and information about decisions affecting their practice, including decisions related to resource allocation. Such nurses recognize that decisions regarding staffing, technology to support practice, salaries, wages, and other factors that affect the practice environment should be in the hands of the nursing professionals who work in that environment; and if they are not, powerful nurses question whether it is because the organization does not value professional nursing practice.6. Nurses with a powerful practice strive to develop an impeccable character; to be inspirational, compassionate, and to have a credible, sought-after perspective. A number of the nurse leaders observed that nurses with a powerful practice are grounded by a set of values and principles that they freely share with others and that guide their decisions and actions. The values and principles also help foster compassion, make the nurses less fearful and more open to others ideas, and help nurses stay the course during times that may be tumultuous for patients, families, and colleagues. Nurses who are open to others and who use a values-based approach also find that others often seek out their perspective; this not only brings the nurse more power, but is the antithesis of using power as a coercive strategy.
  • 5. 7. Nurses with a powerful practice recognize that the role of the nurse leader is to pave the way for nurses voices to be heard and to help novice nurses develop into powerful professionals. Many of the nurse leaders noted that helping novice nurses develop a voice that is based on professional credibility and expertise is a responsibility of nurse leaders at the unit, practice, program, and institutional levels. Powerful nurses, they said, recognize this and know that by fostering a nurses professional development they promote the power of the individual nurse, enhance their own power, and strengthen the power of nursing as a profession. Powerful nurses in leadership positions also avoid using phrases such as, "My nursing staff," or "My faculty." Although unintentional, phrases like these suggest that a nurse is subservient to others and can diminish the professional stature of the individual. 8. Nurses with a powerful practice evaluate the power of nursing and the nursing department in organizations they enter by assessing the organizations mission and values and its commitment to enhancing the power of diverse perspectives. Many of the nurse leaders observed that nurses with a powerful practice tend to seek out and work in environments that support nurses and nursing practice, and that are led by strong nurse leaders who are themselves respected and valued by the institution. Such organizations place a high value on nurses and nursing care and, by design, uphold and contribute to the power of nurses that practice within them.All of the nurse leaders agreed that institutions that value diversity and respect are morelikely to value nursing and are stronger organizations as a result. They noted that inorganizations where the power of nursing is diminished, nurse leaders and nursing staffmust develop strategic plans that promote respect and diversity, and must work to elevatethe nursing profession and nursing practice through leadership development, establishinga strong research base, and creating programs that foster the professional development ofnurses at all levels.During our discussions, the nurse leaders described their experiences in their currentplaces of work and compared and contrasted these to their experience in general and inother organizations. While all but one nurse leader described their current nursingdepartment and nurse leaders as powerful, perceptions of the power of nursing seemed tovary across organizations. For example, in the comprehensive cancer center where "thecure of cancer through research" was the dominant mission, nurses felt less powerful thanin the academic medical center where "patient care" was the prominent mission andnurses role in the around-the-clock care of patients gave them greater power as a groupand as individuals (this was particularly true for nurses who had established themselvesas expert, compassionate professionals). Nurse leaders from the university/college settingnoted that the power base of nurses in academic settings depends on the dean of theschool of nursing and on the mission of the college/university. These two factors, theysaid, play a significant role in determining the nursing schools esteem and credibilitywithin the organization.
  • 6. Types and Sources of PowerFormal Power – power often tied to a formal position where the responsibilities of thatposition includes the ability to influence or make decisions affecting a communityInformal Power – power that is not tied to any position, often resulting from personalcharacteristics. This power allows the person/group to influence and/or represent acommunity without formal decision making.Sources of formal or informal power: Resources – money, knowledge, skills, materialsExample – A local foundation can decide what issues and organizations shouldreceive the foundation’s resources. Elected or appointed positionExample – A city council member can vote on decisions affecting citywidepolicy. Community support and/or representationExample – A well respected youth organizing group has the support of andcan mobilize hundreds of local youth to speak out on an issue Others’ perception of powerExample – A local activist regularly tells decision-makers of his ability tomobilize large numbers in his community. Although this activist has limitedsupport within the community, decision-makers often listen to and supporthis ideas.Personal Power – power resulting directly from the persons or persons representing agroupSources of personal power: Expertise – knowledge, skills and experience relevant to the taskExample – A Youth Innovation Fund Board’s extensive understanding ofpressing issues in the community. Personal attraction – characteristics associated with likeability (“charisma” andability to inspire)Example – A teacher’s passion and inspirational descriptions about theimpact service-learning has had in her classroom Effort – dependability and evidence of higher than expected time commitment
  • 7. Example – A Youth Innovation Fund grantee’s demonstrated hard work andcommitment to addressing a local issue Legitimacy – actions clearly display a particular value commonly held among partnersExample – A recently elected mayor’s decision to implement the youth voiceagenda on which she campaigned, as soon as she is in office.Positional Power – power resulting directly from the position and tasks performed by aparticular groupSources of positional power: Centrality – access to information in a broad and diverse communication networkExample – A site coordinator’s ongoing communication with young people,adults, local decision makers, community organizers, funders, other YouthFund sites, etc. Flexibility – ability to improvise and innovateExample – A Youth Innovation Fund Board’s ability to identify and addressthe most pressing issues in a community Visibility – the number of “influential” people with whom a group interactsExample – A Youth Innovation Fund Site’s ability to interact with diverseinfluentials as a result of access to influential groups held by the variousconsortium partners Relevance – how much a group’s work is connected to larger community’s prioritiesExample – A Youth Innovation Fund Youth Board addressing an issueidentified as a pressing concern of youth and adults in the community