October, 1997 - Power and Corporate Politics
This may be the toughest of all areas within corporate life - dealing with power and politics. It can make or break your career, cause many sleepless nights, and often has very little to do with the actual job you thought you were paid to do. Some companies are better or worse than others in the amount of political activity required in order to do your job. In some companies, playing corporate politics is the only job you have time for. In others, it is only marginally important.
Usually, the larger the company, the more part the politics play in your ability to perform.
In order to be successful in the corporate world, people need power. The types of power available are formal power and informal power. Smart corporate politicians will build their base of power in many different ways.
FORMAL POWER (conferred by the organization):
Formal power is most easily recognized in our society: generals and presidents have formal position power.
Position Power: The power of role and the expectations associated with a role or job title.
Reward Power: The ability to provide something of value to another.
Coercive Power: The ability to punish or to deprive the other of something of value.
INFORMAL POWER (earned, not conferred):
Informal power is less well understood, however, it is far stronger than formal power over the long term.
Expert Power: The power of respect gained as a result of what we know and what we can do.
Friendship Power: The power of trust, shared goals, sense of identification.
Presence Power: The power of image.
It is important to consider the personality type of the target of influence when selecting a power strategy. Ask yourself, "What are their needs, motivations and unique working style?" In order to influence someone, several strategies may be used:
Michael Korda, author of Power! notes that power pays off. He reminds us, "it is not enough to want power or even to have it. It must be used creatively. And, it must be enjoyed. The use of power as a weapon of aggression makes monsters of us. . . . Power must be the servant, not the master."
Following are suggestions for when to use different power strategies, depending on what you are trying to achieve.
Strategy: Involving Others
GOALS: Your goals are interdependent (to reach yours is to contribute to the ability of others to reach theirs and vice versa).
CONTROLS: You rely on the on-going commitment and judgment of the other person.
URGENCY (TIME): Time is available for exploration and problem-solving. Delay would not hurt either of you.
BALANCE OF POWER: Both parties have information or expertise the other party needs. Or, both parties trust and respect each other.
COMMITMENT: Long-term commitment to your goals by the others is sought.
Strategy: Negotiating with Others
GOALS: Your goals are independent; (not related).
CONTROLS: "Rules" covering fair play and foul play exist and are understood by all parties to the contract.
URGENCY (TIME): Delay would hurt the other person more than you. You can tolerate a deadlock better than the other. Or, delay would hurt both of you.
BALANCE OF POWER: Both parties can help (reward) or hurt (punish) each other.
COMMITMENT: Commitment to a contract or agreement is more important than commitment to goals.
Strategy: Directing Others
GOALS: Your goals are counter-dependent ( if you succeed, chances are the other will fail).
CONTROLS: You have ways to find out about "sabotage" before you're badly hurt. Constant or frequent surveillance is possible.
URGENCY (TIME): Delay would be detrimental to you.
BALANCE OF POWER: You can reward or punish the other person more than he/she can reward or punish you.
COMMITMENT: Long-term commitment of the other person is not important. Opposition or antagonism is acceptable (the other party can be replaced).
Strategy: Enlisting Others
GOALS: You can't reach your goal without the others' help, however, their goals are not dependent upon you.
CONTROLS: The worst thing the other person can do is turn you down. They would not gain by hurting you in the other ways.
URGENCY (TIME): Delay would hurt you more than the other person.
BALANCE OF POWER: The other person likes you, respects you, and is not in a position to be hurt by you.
COMMITMENT: Permission or acquiescence is more important than commitment. Opposition or antagonism is not acceptable.
In order to manipulate someone, there are several strategies that may be used:
Manipulation is a dangerous tactic, and should be avoided if at all possible. Manipulation destroys trust, makes it difficult to build and use expert power or friendship power in the future.
Manipulation also creates suspicion and hostility from others. The results will lead to lose of power by the manipulator (what goes around, comes around).
Power plays are uses of power designed to more publicly exert power over another. They most often occur when someone is threatened by turf issues, general or specific insecurity, corporate reorganizations (merger, acquisition, down-sizing). A power play may occur when someone wants to expand their empire and doesn't know healthy ways to gain power.
Some people know only how to operate through the use of power politics and are totally confused by someone who won't play their game. If you find yourself in this environment and are the type who won't (or can't) play, you may be in the wrong company.
Or, you may want to learn how to play the corporate politics game. The choice is yours.
One of the best techniques for understanding where power resides in a corporation is the Power Map. A Power Map is a way of presenting (in picture or graph form) the ways power exists within an organization.
To create a power map, start with an organization chart of your company. Then, use a color code to draw lines on your chart showing the 'informal' org-chart.
Use different colors to show the type of power that exists between two people. For example, if the Manager of Marketing is the son of the president's wife's brother, use a red color to show they have an outside social/family relationship. Use a green color to show people who often collaborate through shared motives, but are not organizationally reporting to each other. Use orange to denote those who can influence each other, and so on.
When you have finished, your power map will answer many of your questions about where the power resides. Your chart will be quite extensive and detailed if you have worked in a large company for any length of time.
In some cases, it may be easier to develop index cards with the knowledge you have about each person on your org-chart. On each card list: name, personality style, management style, motivation attributes, comfortable working arrangements, power styles and actions, trust/influence relationships, type of power that they use or which motivates them, and other interesting notes about them.
Once you've done your homework, you'll have something very few others have: Information Power and Knowledge Power.
Keep your chart hidden - or better yet, keep it at home. It will serve you well and will require almost constant attention with updates as changes occur. It will give you knowledge and awareness of how to gain support for your efforts and projects. It can keep you out of trouble and out of others' power plays, although some people will try to drag you into their issues anyway. It may also serve you well should your company become a victim of: down-sizing, merger, acquisition, failure or other trauma. It may protect you, prepare you for failure, or for success.
This exercise is one of the secrets to understanding power and how it really works !!
Building a Professional Network Outside
If any of the 'What If ... ' situations come about, how quickly can you find another job? Do you have a network of friends who can help you find another job, or give you introductions to others?
This used to be a less important issue than it is today - with mergers, acquisitions, down-sizing and major companies re- structuring almost daily. Many very successful and highly competent people have found themselves out of work due to the economy, industry changes, corporate politics or just plain bad luck.
The true value of a professional network, combining people you work with today, those you've worked with in the past, and those that you work with in community or professional groups may be the difference between finding a new position quickly and facing financial disaster !! This network also provides fresh ideas, new insights into daily challenges, different perspectives to use in old situations and a way to broaden your talents, skills and interests in a fun way.
Your outside network is often your 'safety net' and support system of people who care about you, and have your interests at heart. They aren't usually after your job, or concerned about the politics of your company, so are willing to provide advice without political bias. They usually have nothing to lose if you don't take their advice.
If you haven't spent time and energy building a professional network, start today.
Some ways to build an external professional network:
Join a professional group in your industry, take a class at a local university or graduate school, work with your church or the local chamber of commerce, or attend any group that interests you. Start with one group: attend meetings, get involved in a committee, have lunch with others, help where you can and see how it works. You may find you like being involved in a board of directors or enjoy coaching a sports team. The contacts you make there can help you develop new skills and help you gain confidence, particularly if your current job isn't all you hoped it would be. Many people have found new jobs or new careers through their outside professional network.
Making solid contacts takes time and effort, but it is one of the most fun ways to help
move ahead professionally. The day will come when you recognize the contacts are worth
their weight in gold!!
Building a Professional Network Inside
One way to gain corporate power is to build your informal network. Think about the questions listed to see how strong your internal network already is. Consider scheduling regular time to improve and maintain your internal network. For example, have lunch with someone at least a month or make at least one phone a week to someone you would like to maintain in your network.
1. Who do you have power over?
2. What type of power do you hold over them (for each of the above people, identify the type(s) of power you have over them):
3. Who can you influence?
4. What kinds of influence can you exert?
5. What types of persuasion or motivation do you use?
6. Why do you have this influence power with these people (history of relationship)?
7. Have you moved around in your company?
8. For each position/job title you've held in the company (or parent, subsidiary or division), list: your job title, department, superiors, subordinates, peer colleagues.
9. How have you maintained your relationships with each of these people:
10. How would your describe your relationship previously:
11. How would your describe your relationship currently:
Consider some of the following professional disasters, and see how your current professional network might be able to help you. Given the amount of mail we get about hostile work place situations, these questions are not far-fetched. A little disaster planning is well advised for people in many major corporations.
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Source: In Search of Identity: Clarifying Corporate Culture, Barbara Taylor � 1993
Page updated: October 16, 2023
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