Courage is key to unlocking social power in your organization | Column

There is a power source available in your organization that is likely not visible to you. It is hidden right in front of you — a naturally occurring power source that is quite often unrecognized by everyone in the organization, not just you. By virtue of the inherited tone of most working environments this power source, social power we’ll call it, is regularly utilized informally but has not been legitimized in any formal way and consequently is underutilized at best and squandered at worst.

Social power is the ability to get things done organizationally through the formation of mutually beneficial relationships.

This hidden power is not simply a management issue. It affects the perspective of everyone in an organization and for the most part it is unintentional. It is hidden primarily by the fear we encourage as employers and managers with policies and rules as well as the fear that our employees experience.

We know intuitively that people come to work each day looking for the opportunity to engage, to contribute. We know this because that is the way we are and why would everyone else be different? However, once at work we encounter the “matrix of control and expectation.” By the rules of this matrix, work is a solemn pursuit. Laughter, tears or other expressions of emotion are clear indicators that some type of tomfoolery is afoot. (Senior managers have contacted me on more than one occasion following workshops where laughter or tears were present to make sure everything was alright.)

If you don’t believe me, about the fear that is, watch what happens when you walk into the break room to find people laughing and see if they go suddenly silent when they see an authority figure.

Of course this is not entirely true. Are there working environments that are heavy handed? you bet! But are they most working environments? Our experience tells us no, yet the mythology persists as a function of employees’ overactive imaginations and, more importantly, management practices that reinforce the hierarchy, the “matrix of control.”

Why are all those permissions required in your workplace? Why reinforce the notion that employees need to get permission to improve their workplaces or their productivity? These are not rhetorical questions. Why indeed, because the notion of management being in charge is deeply embedded in the prevailing mindset about management. One of the primary ways, maybe the primary way, in which management justifies its existence is through the exercise of control.

Take a look at studies by organizational sociologists over the years and you will see the consistency of assumptions. Our basic understanding of power in the workplace comes from academic sources such as social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, in 1959. You will find either this study, or some later replication of it in the background of much of the thinking that surrounds the perpetuation of management models and the development of managers in our organizations today.

What this and other studies do is relegate our knowledge of power to a game of manipulating consequences that should more rightly be categorized as various forms of force. Force: from Physics, an influence tending to change the motion of a body or produce motion or stress in a stationary body. In other words energy is expended in service of influence over behavior.

Social power, the hidden power source, is a naturally occurring and unlimited free source of power that occurs when employees recognize mutual benefit and mutual self-interest in helping each other succeed. It is a process that releases energy; it has an additive quality that produces a net gain of power when employed in service of organizational objectives.

Why not include in any new employee orientation or management development conversation the request that every employee and manager come to work each day with the purpose of making sure everyone around them succeeds? What if when employees make suggestions for improvements instead of saying you’ll give it some thought you ask them to create a plan for how to do it and have them get back to you with what they think they’ll need from you to be successful?

How about taking management or employee development out of a classroom setting and conducting it right at work with managers and employees who are functionally related and have a the naturally occurring potential for recognizing mutual self-interest?

How about rolling your sleeves up and getting related to the people you pay to make your business successful?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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