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Power vs. Authority (And Why it Matters in The Workplace)

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It is not very clear to differentiate between power and authority. Where does one start and the other begin? In this article, we’ll clarify the difference between power vs. authority and teach you how to navigate power and authority differences in the workplace responsibly.

The Simple Difference Between Power and Authority

Power is about having influence, while authority is about official decision-making rights. 

Power refers to the ability to influence others’ behavior or decisions. This influence can come from different sources, like knowledge, personal charisma, or access to important resources.

On the other hand, authority is when someone gives orders or makes decisions for others based on their position within an organization.

Understanding this difference can help you clarify who has power in your organization and ways for you to develop more influence for yourself.

Here are a few examples to better understand these two concepts:

  • Senior analyst on a team is well respected for their many years of great work, and they have the power to influence what strategies the team pursues. Ultimately, the decision is up to the team lead, who can pick the direction.
  • An employee is very well-connected and is buddy-buddy with everyone, from the CEO to the interns. Because they are connected with so many people, they have developed networking power, and when these people have ideas about company policies, their voice travels through their network. 
  • However, let’s say the company is facing a big ethical decision about whether to go with the cheaper manufacturer who might have suspect practices. While the persona above may have influence, in this case, the company may overtly turn to an employee who has shown themself to have integrity and virtue for the decision. This person has, over time, accrued moral authority and may be the deciding voice for such situations.

If you have power or authority in your workplace, knowing how this impacts others is important. Unless we are mindful of our power and authority, we can end up disempowering those who work under us. 

8 Types of Power

Researchers French and Raven1,both%20the%20influencee%20and%20influencer. put forth five other types of power back in 1959. In this list, we’ve expanded their original idea to eight common ways folks gain power and influence in the workplace, even if they don’t have official authority.

Use this list to see where you fall short and where you can improve.

  1. Expert power: Individuals with high expertise or knowledge in a particular area have expert power. This expertise makes them valuable to the organization and often gives them influence.
  2. Networking power: This is derived from the relationships a person cultivates with others in the organization. People who are well-liked, respected, or have strong interpersonal skills can have significant influence, as others value their opinions and want to please them.
  3. Rewards power: This comes from the ability to provide rewards to others. This might be a manager who can give bonuses, promotions, or other benefits, or it could even be a colleague who always brings in treats or makes the office a more enjoyable place to work. If you make people feel good, it gives you power.
  4. Fear power: This power comes from the ability to punish or threaten others. While this is not an ideal form of power and can create a negative work environment, it is nevertheless a source of power that some people in an organization might hold. 
  5. Information control power: Individuals with access to valuable or important information or who control the flow of information within the organization can wield significant power.
  6. Charismatic power: This power stems from an individual’s traits or likeability. This might include personal qualities like confidence, eloquence, attractiveness, or the ability to inspire and motivate others. Such individuals often have significant influence, even if they don’t hold a formal position of power. You can also learn more about charismatic leadership styles in this article.
  7. Resource control power: This power source is based on control over resources that others need or want. This could be anything from budget allocation to control over valuable equipment or desirable office space.
  8. Longevity power: Often, you can culminate power just by being somewhere long enough. Eventually, you gain enough tenure, depth of knowledge, and respect for your commitment that you earn power and influence.

6 Tips for Leaders to Use Their Power and Authority Wisely

If you have power or authority in your work, it is worth ensuring that you are not unintentionally abusing your power in any way.

Below are six actionable tips to help you humanize yourself and remove some possible unhealthy side effects of power differentials.

  1. Invite feedback

The most straightforward way to humanize yourself and equalize any wonky power dynamics is to create space for transparent feedback. 

We can learn from Ray Dalio, famous writer and founder of Bridgewater, who built the world’s most prominent hedge fund on the principles2 of “radical truth” and “radical transparency.”

There are three approaches to this.

Approach 1: Invite feedback in 1-on-1 conversations. You can ask your teammates, “Do you have any feedback for me?” Or you can come up with specific questions like “Do you have any feedback on ways I could be a better leader?” 

If you take this approach, recognize that giving honest feedback can be tremendously vulnerable, so make sure you listen with care.

Approach 2: Invite feedback in a group forum. Again, you could ask, “What feedback do folks have?” Or you could come up with specific questions like “How could company culture be improved, and what actions could leadership take to promote this improvement?”

If you choose this route, let others do most, if not all, of the talking. 

Approach 3: Create a system for online feedback with the option of anonymity. Give regular reminders and encouragement for people to submit feedback they think would be good for the leadership to hear. Whether around professional decisions or personal conduct. The more honesty you can draw forth, the better.

You could also make this analog and have people print out slips with typed feedback and put them in a box.

  1. Always Fess up

When you admit times when you’ve made mistakes and take responsibility, it creates a ton of trust and will make you far more relatable and human.

As Frances X Frei3, professor of management at Harvard Business School, writes, “When you take responsibility for a wobble, you reveal your humanity … and analytic chops … while communicating your commitment to the relationship.”

Action Step: Reflect on if there was a time recently when you made a mistake but never took responsibility for it. If you need to jog your memory, you could think about:

  • Feedback you’ve received
  • Times you’ve micromanaged
  • Moments where you treated someone unfairly
  • Times where you withheld information
  • Moments where you didn’t complete your responsibility fully or on time
  • Decisions you’ve made (even small ones) where you prioritized ease over ethics

Then, to anyone involved, acknowledge the error you made, apologize for any negative impact it may have caused, and see what you can learn to do better next time.

  1. Give others power

One way to equalize power in the workplace is to give others power. If you can find a responsibility that you either aren’t great at or don’t love doing and give it to someone who enjoys and is good at it, it’s a win-win. They get more power and responsibility, and you free up time to put towards something you are more effective at.

Action Step: Think of one responsibility you hold at work that you think someone else would be equally good at doing. Ask if they’d be interested in taking on this responsibility.

  1. Seek to foster your teams’ gifts

One philosopher4 says that a leader’s highest act is to help others recognize, cultivate, and express their gifts. By “gift,” he means something a person enjoys doing and is uniquely good at.

When a leader helps someone express their gifts, the leader isn’t just improving their bottom line. They are helping their team member tap into their expression of purpose.

Action Step: Write down the name of everyone who you lead. Then, next to their name, write down a few notes of what you perceive their “superpower” to be. 

Then, the next time you meet with them, share this information about them, see what they think, and brainstorm opportunities to help them express their superpowers more often in their role.

  1. Help your team advocate for their needs

One of the ways that a power imbalance can manifest is when an employee struggles to say “no” to someone with power.

In these cases, the employee tramples over their boundaries and dismisses their needs because they fear what might happen if they say “no” or advocate for themselves.

Action Step: If you are a boss or team lead, before your next 1-on-1 with one of your team members, ask them to reflect on the following question:

Are there times at work when you struggle to say “no” to a request? It could be around time, workload, expectations, etc.

Then, when you meet with them, open this up as a conversation point, give them space to be honest, and affirm their experience.

  1. Empower employees to take care of themselves through your example 

When managers and company leaders take vacation, mental health, and sick days, people under them will feel more empowered to take those days, too.

Similarly, if a leader overworks, responds to messages after hours, or makes urgent requests outside of work hours, they are promoting a culture of overwork where people may lose track of their needs.

Action Step: How many vacation days do you have a year? Have you taken them all? If not, start to get the wheels turning by thinking, “If I could take any vacation I wanted this year, where would I go?”

If you would like to learn more about how influence and power work, check out this free goodie:

Become More Influential

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How Power and Authority Can Be Abused

The famous saying goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And there is truth to this. When we gain power, we must be careful how we use it because it is so easy to abuse power.

Abuse of power

Here are a few common ways that people abuse power to look out for:

Unfair treatment: Power can be abused by favoring some people over others. Those with power might give unfair advantages, resources, or opportunities to those they prefer, resulting in unequal treatment in the workplace.

Control over information: Those with power often control access to valuable information. This power can be abused by withholding or misrepresenting information to maintain control and influence decisions in their favor.

Evasion of accountability: Powerful individuals may use their power to evade responsibility or accountability. They might cover up mistakes, shift blame onto others, or use their power to silence those who try to hold them accountable.

Warped perception of their value. Sometimes, if someone has enough power, they may start to believe, on some level, that they are a more valuable human than those with less power.

Unawareness of how their power impacts others. It is common for people to struggle to say “no” to someone with power or to assume that person knows better than they do. There’s a reason why it’s so common for cult leaders and Catholic priests alike to uphold their desires while muting the other person’s consent.

Abuse of authority

And similarly, here are several ways that it is common for people to abuse their authority:

Micromanagement: Those in positions of authority may misuse it by excessively controlling or scrutinizing the work of their subordinates. Micromanagement can stifle creativity, inhibit productivity, and create a stressful work environment.

Nepotism or favoritism: Those with authority might abuse it by showing favoritism or nepotism, privileging certain individuals over others based on personal relationships rather than merit. This can lead to demotivation, frustration within the team, and unfair treatment.

Exploitation: Some authority figures may exploit their position by taking advantage of their subordinates, whether through excessive work demands, unfair pay, or inappropriate behavior.

How to Use Power and Authority to Promote Positive Change

Fortunately, power and authority can both be used for good. If you take note of your power and authority and recognize how it impacts others, you can harness it to create positive ripples. Consider the following ideas.

Encourage participation and collaboration: Harness your power and authority to create an inclusive environment that values everyone’s contributions. Encourage open communication, foster collaboration, and allow everyone to have a say in decisions that impact them. This encourages ownership and commitment, fostering a culture of engagement and innovation.

Lead by example: As a leader, your actions set a precedent for your team. Use your authority to model the behavior you expect from your team. This might include respecting others, acting with integrity, treating everyone fairly, or promoting a work-life balance. 

Research suggests5 that leading by example increases cooperation. So, choosing to lead by example not only sets standards but also fosters a positive, connected, and ethical work culture.

Empower and develop others: Use your power and authority to support the growth and development of your team. Provide learning opportunities, delegate tasks that help develop new skills, give constructive feedback, and provide resources that support their career goals. When employees feel valued and supported, they are more likely to perform well and contribute positively to the organization.

Promote transparency and accountability: Transparency fosters trust, while accountability promotes responsibility. Use your authority to create clear communication channels, openly share information, and hold everyone (including yourself) accountable for their actions and decisions. This can prevent the abuse of power, build trust, and promote a sense of fairness within the team.

Frequently Asked Questions About Power Versus Authority

What is the difference between authority and power?

The difference between authority and power lies in their source. How they are exercised: power is the ability to influence others’ behavior and decisions, often derived from knowledge, skills, or relationships, while authority is the right to make decisions, give orders, and expect compliance, usually stemming from a formal role or position in an organization.

Are power and authority the same?

No, power and authority are not the same. While both can influence behavior and decision-making, power is about the capacity to influence, often informally, while authority is about the formal right to make decisions and expect obedience.

Are power and authority associated with leadership?

Yes, power and authority are closely associated with leadership. Leaders often have authority due to their formal position and power, which can stem from various sources, like expertise or interpersonal relationships, to influence their teams.

What is the difference between power and authority examples?

The difference between power and authority can be seen in examples like these: a team member may have the power to influence decisions because of their expertise (power), while a manager has the authority to make those decisions because of their role (authority).

Which is a higher power or authority?

Neither power nor authority is inherently higher than the other. They serve different functions and can coexist – a person may have power through influence but not the authority to make decisions, while another may have authority but lack the power to influence their team.

Why does power and/or authority matter?

Power and authority matter because they shape dynamics within an organization. They influence decision-making processes, affect task completion, and impact relationships and morale within the workplace.

Takeaways on Power Vs. Authority

Power and authority are coexisting social concepts that exist in every workplace. Power is about influence, and authority is about official decision-making rights.

If you notice you wield a fair amount of power or authority in your workplace, you can consciously navigate this power differential using some of these tactics:

  • Invite feedback either in 1-on-1s, team meetings, or an online feedback system
  • Fess up to any time you make a mistake. See where you can take responsibility
  • Give others power. Look for responsibilities you have that you could delegate to others.
  • Seek to foster your teams’ gifts. Reflect on what each team member’s superpower is, then bring this up with them, and look for opportunities to give them more opportunities around their superpower
  • Help your team advocate for their needs by asking when they’ve struggled to say “no” at work.
  • Lead by example by taking breaks and vacations because this gives your team permission to do the same.

If you are curious to understand the nature of power and how people tend to gain power, you might enjoy reading this article.

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