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How to understand the power dynamics in your new job

Posted on 11th October 2022

“I felt like a raisin in a gigantic fruit salad–and I didn’t even know who the cantaloupes were.”

This was Mark Hamill’s experience on starting his new job as Luke Skywalker, so if you have no idea who holds the power in your organisation, you’re definitely not alone. But knowing your cantaloupes is vital to your long-term success. Here are five ways to identify the power dynamics you won’t find on your company website.

  1. Understand the different kinds of power

To understand who has real influence in your organisation, you need to know what kinds of power you’re dealing with. Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven have defined six kinds of power we use to get others to do what we want: coercive (using force); reward (using incentives); legitimate (using hierarchy); referent (using affiliation), expert (using knowledge authority), and informational (using access to scarce resources of data).

You might even spot a seventh or eighth–for example, using reputation. Someone who’s getting good press or has a big success may suddenly become more influential.

  1. Identify who people seek out for authority

Who are the colleagues everyone seems to know (referent power)? Who’s always getting their projects and funding requests approved (informational or reward power)? Who do people always ask for help or advice? Who gets invited to prestigious meetings?

This information isn’t usually a secret, so ask your colleagues who’s well-regarded in the company and who you need to get to know in order to succeed.

  1. Spot situational shifts in influence

Power is dynamic, and the power landscape changes. For example, hybrid working has caused a big change: in the new normal, relational power often has more influence than hierarchical power, so job titles are less important than who you know. And people who work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) are suddenly getting promoted to board roles as these issues take on new importance worldwide.

  1. Look beyond the obvious

It’s natural to assume that the people with “chief” or “senior” in their job titles are in charge–but this assumption may be wrong. For example, in a hospital it may not be the executives who really call the shots, but the nurses–so if you walk in and start patronising the nurses and cosying up to the executives, you won’t get very far.

It’s also important to recognise the power of people who bridge gaps between departments–for example, supply chain leaders who can choose which exec’s needs to prioritise and which to push to the back of the queue.

  1. Build relationships through curiosity and generosity

Once you’ve identified the powerful people, build relationships with them by showing a humble desire to learn from them and to offer them support with no selfish agenda. Don’t rush it, but keep showing curiosity and generosity over time until they genuinely want to get to know you better.