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Leaders and culture: what’s your power base?

  • 22 June 2021
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Being aware of your power and how power alters your and others’ perceptions and responses helps to handle power better. This is crucial if you want to develop a positive culture at work and achieve high performance.
I’ve been a fan of Julie Diamond’s work since I attended one of her workshops. I finally took the time to read her book “Power - a user’s guide”. This is recommended reading for leaders of all levels and useful for other people, too. Let’s take a look - this post is the first, we’ll explore further in the next post on power.

Power is our capacity to impact and influence our environment: it’s the force to do, and the freedom to not do. As the scholar Paul Watzlawick said: you cannot not influence. So, what is your influence?

Your power base

Basically, you have two types of power: formal/social and personal power. True power does not emerge from your position - it emerges from your social status and personality. Society grands you power based on your skin color, gender and social class, skill and seniority, your circle of friends, and so on. People grand you power based on your personality traits, your responses, how convincing and inspirational you are, how much energy and value you add - or the other way around: how much paralysis, silence and fear you cause.

It’s important to be aware of your power base. We all have a collection of roles and ranks in different areas: society, family, physical health, intelligence, personality, lineage, school, friends, wealth. What’s yours?
Diamond’s book offers a self-test on:
Sociopolitical power: race, wealth, education, gender, health, religion, profession
Positional power: at work or in a group
Informal power: do you feel valued or not, for what?
Historical power: that you derive from your upbringing, strengths and weaknesses
Personal power: inner resources, self-management
This is a great exercise for a team also - if you want to improve diversity and inclusion. Let’s become more aware of our differences and similarities, and how they convert to influence in a team.

Underusing or overusing?

Power is hard to do right, as Diamond says. Half the executives promoted to the highest levels fail within two years, as research shows. One reason is underusing or overusing your power.
Leaders who don’t make decisions allow projects to derail and frustrate people - they are underusing their positional power. Overusing power can be just at bad, when you use too much ammo to win an argument, or when you use power to boost your self-worth or don’t hold yourself accountable while you criticize your direct reports. Great leaders use power right, both personal and formal power.

Power changes perception

The issue with power is that leaders perceive themselves differently through power.
With power or a high rank, we show more disinhibition. We do as we please: we’re more inclined to follow our own ideas than to be influenced by others. Studies show that regular people, when primed to have high status, believe they can control events, even those outside of their sphere of influence. They tend to underestimate consequences and overestimate their chances of success. 
In a high-ranking role, people become more instrumental to you. People are a means to an end - your empathy diminishes. A low-ranking role on the other hand, makes you more sensitive to other’s emotions and increases empathy.
Immunity from social pressure, combined with the confidence that you control things and the diminished interest in and feelings for others is what leadership brings. It is super important to be self-aware.

The issue with power is also that people perceive us differently when we have positional power (as leaders).
It’s lonely at the top as people start to treat you differently. People don’t like to give you bad news and dissent: they want to be well-liked, appreciated and safe with their leaders who have the power to hire, fire and evaluate: to make work life great or not so much.
The higher up you are, the more dependent on others you are for operational, timely information - but you may lack genuine feedback. As a leader, you can also pick and choose who you relate with, and who has access to you. How biased is your information?

  • What is your power based on external circumstances such as family, lineage, school, friends, wealth, neighborhood? 
  • What’s your personal power based on - your internal source from physical health, intelligence, personality traits? How convincing, independent, emotionally well are you?
  • What’s your formal power based on?
  • In a leading role, how do you rate yourself on disinhibition, sense of control, and empathy? How can you improve?
  • In a following role, how do you judge your leaders? How do you treat them - offering dissenting views and bad information?
  • In a leading role, do you hear enough dissenting views? How biased is your information? Should you enlarge the circle who has access to you and your information sources?

Next time, we’ll look at how to handle power well.

© Marcella Bremer, 2021. All rights reserved.

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