Power is something which gives us the ability to influence or direct other people. It is an invisible but powerful force in our lives and our organizations. I have worked for supervisors who use their power to produce fear and for others who wield it in ways that makes me want to perform my best. We can learn a lot about others based on how they use (or don’t use) power.
There are two types of power that occur as we interact with others.
Positional Power is the use of your authority over someone to get something done. This type of power is something you exert over others. Positional power is given to a person as a result of their position (your boss at work can use his position to make you do things), the ability to give out rewards (a coach who awards hard working players with more playing time) or it can also be applied in a coercive way (Kim Jong-un, the despotic ruler of North Korea uses coercive power to ensure follows do as he says). As an example, when parents tell our children ‘because I said so’ they are using our positional power to make something happen (or stop something from occurring!). A simple way to visualize positional power is with the image of you pointing your finger at another person – this simple gesture indicates your positional power and authority over another person.
Positional power comes from the official position within an organization or community—the role, rank or title attached to membership in the group. For example, most workers know that they must answer to their managers, but they don’t usually think of the manager as personal power. But it is personal power, because any positional power comes from what we do and how we influence others with our personal qualities and expertise.
Personal Power is when your authority is given to you by others. It is typically given because of the expertise or competence that a person possesses (we typically extend this trust to our medical doctor) or by our personal identification or liking of a person (few people personally knew Nelson Mandela but he was liked by almost everyone). Personal power is bestowed upon us by others and gives us the ability to accomplish something because others allow us to do so. Instead of us pointing a finger at others, the image for this style of power has others pointing a finger at us and asking for our involvement or expertise. When your child texts you and asks you for advice they are bestowing personal power as they are indicating that they respect and trust your judgment.
When it comes to personal power, knowledge is king. People are drawn to experts with the skills and abilities that promise personal power. And personal power grows when it’s used effectively in interpersonal connections to influence others in positive ways. But personal power isn’t just about what you know—it’s also about how you use your personal qualities to help others understand their world, which is why personal power can be found in qualities that are often overlooked, such as being warm, enthusiastic or caring.
Effective use of positional and personal power is situational and we must learn when to use each one. At times, it is appropriate for parents to request their children to do something ‘because they said so’ (positional). In contrast, Pope Francis appears to believe that he can accomplish the goals of the Catholic Church by allowing others to give him power (personal).
There are also times when we can inappropriately use power. Can you recall a social conversation with someone who keeps trying to impress others by telling all about their accomplishments? These people are inappropriately trying to remind you that they deserve positional power (and it usually backfires). As well, an over-reliance of personal power will not be effective when you are in situations when no one knows you. Personal power is something which is earned over time.
What makes personal and positional powers so powerful? They quickly become reciprocal: positional powers can be used to gain personal power, personal powers can be used to gain positional power. Positional powers lead to personal power when they’re earned and respected. Personal powers lead to positional power when we use them in ways that influence others’ opinions and behavior.
So where’s the problem? Just like it’s possible for personal and positional powers to become too intertwined, they can become disconnected—and this disconnection is just as dangerous. For personal power, it’s when personal qualities are used in ways that aren’t effective or ethical, which is how personal power becomes positional power. And for positional power, it’s when personal funds are used to increase one’s authority in the community with no regard for personal power, which is how positional powers can become personal powers.
That’s why it’s important to maintain the balance between personal and positional powers. Too much personal power without any corresponding positional powers might lead to personal narcissism or self-aggrandizement at the cost of others’ needs. And too much positional power without personal power is like an empty shell of authority, which doesn’t get you anything. You need personal and positional powers to be effective in any type of leadership role—so make sure they work together.
Effective leaders understand the difference between positional and personal power. Furthermore, they know when to use each of them in order to accomplish their goals. I encourage you to evaluate your use of power. Which of these styles do you use more often? Which style needs improvement? Which do you tend to use inappropriately?
Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email: email@example.com