Power isn’t just something that’s conferred upon you by management as you rise up the corporate ladder. While job titles and official responsibilities can indicate influence over your peers and control over your career, those formal markers aren’t the only thing that shows how much power you have at work.
In a recent article in Harvard Business Review entitled, How to Figure Out How Much Influence You Have at Work, management professor Maxim Sytch discusses how informal power is key to a successful career.
“Informal power — which is unrelated to your formal title — can enable you to mobilize resources, drive change, and create value for the organization as well as yourself,” writes Sytch. “And in the modern workplace, informal power is increasingly pivotal and can secure your place within your organization.”
So how can you figure out how much informal power you have? The first step, Sytch says, is to perform a power audit.
How to Do a Power Audit
Step 1: List your top 10 contacts that enable you to get work done. These contacts can be either internal or external to your organization.
Step 2: For each contact, assign a score from 1 to 10 indicating how much you depend on them. If a contact provides a lot of value and is also difficult to replace, assign a high score. Think broadly about the value your contacts offer. This includes career advice, emotional backing, support with daily activities, information, and access to resources or stakeholders.
Step 3: Do the same in reverse. Assign a score to yourself from others’ perspectives. Approximate how much value you offer your contacts and how difficult it would be to replace you. Be honest.
Red flags include contacts that are all in the same team, contacts that provide you with more value than you do in return, or low dependence scores all the way around. The last problem could mean that you lack a real (non-transactional) relationship with these connections.
Finally, Sytch cautions that if all of the value is concentrated in a few people, you could find yourself vulnerable if anything changes. You don’t want to be a few job changes or retirements away from losing your influence at work.
How to Boost Your Informal Power at Work
Not pleased with the outcome of your power audit? There are ways to increase the amount of influence you have around the office. No one is indispensable, but you can make yourself more valuable to your colleagues — while still achieving your own goals. Try the following:
1. Lend a Helping Hand
One of the best ways to develop your network — inside or outside your current job — is to help others. In the context of job searching, this means being willing to offer referrals, write recommendations and share leads with your friends and colleagues. In the context of building your career in your current role, that means being willing to pitch in.
That could mean putting in extra hours when deadlines loom, or offering to act as a mentor to a junior team member who’s expressed interest in mentorship, or listening to a colleague when they have a tricky problem. Look for ways to pitch in — and not just so that people will do the same for you.
“The idea isn’t to accumulate favors, but to become a kind person that is known for taking action to help people,” writes Scott Greenberg, a business motivational speaker, on his website.
He continues: “Invariably people who assist others find other people start working for them. I have helped other speakers get work, only to have them call me a month later with an opportunity for me. Before we know it, it becomes a contest to see who can be most helpful to the other person. If you have to compete with someone, that’s the way to do it. Get in the habit of working for others and they’ll start working for you.”
2. Really Listen
Fran Lebowitz once said, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”
Most people don’t really know how to listen to others. If you’re willing to learn how, you’ll have something truly valuable to offer your colleagues. Active listening techniques can help you redirect your attention to the person in front of you.
These techniques include:
- Demonstrating real interest. (“Tell me what’s going on. How can I help you?”)
- Restating. (“So, let me see if I understand the problem. Widget X is interfering with Widget Y, causing this particular issue.”)
- Empathizing. (“These deadlines always seem to come in packs. I know it’s hard to prioritize these projects when everything needs to get done.”)
- Using supportive body language. (Nodding, keeping an open posture, maintaining eye contact.)
- Postponing judgment. (Don’t prepare a rebuttal in your head. Don’t interrupt the speaker before they have a chance to make their point.)
Finally, don’t forget to listen to what the person isn’t saying, as well as what they are saying. Is their body language telling a different story than their literal words? Are they leaving something out of their tale — what might that be, and why? You can’t become a mind-reader, but you can learn to tune in.
“‘Actively listening’ can be defined as giving your complete, intentional focus to what someone says, rather than what their words literally mean,” writes Elle Kaplan, CEO/Founder of LexION Capital, at Medium. “Peter Drucker, the highly successful management consultant and author, once said that ‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.’”
3. Maintain Good Boundaries
If you’re someone who’s been taken advantage of by coworkers in the past, you might have read that last section while gritting your teeth. But rest assured that extending yourself in this way does not mean extending an invitation for your teammates to walk all over you.
The key is to set and maintain healthy boundaries with your coworkers — and that means understanding your worth apart from their opinion.
“Healthy boundaries are derived from a good sense of self-worth,” writes Career News blogger, Gina Belli. “When you value yourself in a way that doesn’t depend on other people, or the way they feel about you, you are more equipped to set boundaries.”
In other words, be aware of your own goals and needs before you start offering to help. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re stealing time from your own projects or wrecking your work-life balance.
Look for opportunities to help that are a good fit for your skills, as well as your schedule. Perhaps you have an area of strength that others lack, and you can share your expertise. For example, if you’re a power user of a particular type of software, you might offer to give your coworkers some pointers or conduct a workshop. That’s very different from volunteering to be the go-to person in every project involving that software package. Teach your coworkers to fish, etc.
4. Continuously Improve Your Skills
One of the best things you can do for your career is commit to lifelong learning. Improving your skillset will boost your informal power at your current job, as well as improve your chances of landing a new position down the road. Plus, it may add to your personal bottom line. Add skills that employers want, and you could negotiate a higher a higher salary for your next job.
(Take the PayScale Salary Survey today and find out how much more money you could be earning with your new skillset.)
Which skills should you focus on first? While a quick Google search may turn up hot skills for your field, you can also personalize your approach. Identify your personal skills gap by looking at what your colleagues have that you don’t have (yet). Look at LinkedIn profiles of your contacts with your job title — and the next job title up the ladder.
Then, look at job descriptions in your field. What do employers emphasize in their ads? You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly which skills are most in demand — both hard skills like technical expertise and soft skills like communication, leadership and attention to detail.
5. Make Friends Outside of Work
“Shared activities have an underestimated impact on expanding our networks beyond an insular group of immediate coworkers,” Sytch writes. “A friend of mine, an entrepreneur, first learned from his swim club partner about venture capital firms’ criteria for selecting and funding life science companies. That partner ended up being his first investor.”
You may or may not wind up finding investors or job referrals from your new relationships. But even if you never getting anything tangible that relates to work from these relationships, you’ll have gained something even more valuable: you’ll have become a better friend. That will increase your charisma and boost your informal power, true. But more importantly, it will make you a better boss, a better coworker — and a better human.
Tell Us What You Think
How much power do you think you have at work? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.