Free to be you and me – and powerful.

How much power do you have within your organization? How comfortable are you with even thinking about how much power you have? This month in the Harvard Business Review Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer asks the same questions in his article entitled “Power Play,” and I’ve got to tell you that the article made me squirm – and take notice. Because the question of how much power I have in my organization has been on my mind a lot for the last year or so.

 I am discovering that the power to influence decisions is not, as I have thought, based on how much I know or my technical proficiency; it’s about my people skills. For instance, the Director of my department has, in his short tenure in the City where I work, become one of the most listened-to Directors by the Mayor and City Administrator not because he has many opportunities for displaying his vast knowledge of our field, but because he does things like telling funny stories about his vacation in the few minutes before a meeting starts. I think this is an example of what Pfeffer would call “using the personal touch;” one among 11 ideas he details as keys to personal power.

 Before I actually worked in an office environment and heard the term “networking” I couldn’t stand it. To me “networking” equated to pretending to be interested in people while really wondering how you could use them to advance up the corporate ladder. There’s an aspect of that whole notion that conjures up creepy ‘70’s motivational self-help along the lines of “How to pick up chicks.” My hippie upbringing had me assuming that purposely talking and meeting with specific people because you want to advance your personal agenda is wrong.

 But the first example Pfeffer uses is a woman who had a vision for breast cancer research. Her personal version of success was also advancing a good cause. She purposely influenced and networked with specific people who could help her advance her cause, and they gladly did so, presumably without feeling lied to or manipulated. How could I find fault with methods that ended up in a cause that is so worthy and successful? As I continued to read the article I could feel my hippie paradigm shifting. Maybe it’s okay to seek out and create relationships with people with the notion that they can be helpful in advancing my cause. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi didn’t fight for civil rights by themselves. They made friends and influenced people.

Pfeffer acknowledges that a preoccupation with office politics makes for a generally miserable workplace, but in my experience, so does having a lot of useful ideas that never get heard. If that means a little less time at the computer and more time in my boss’s office listening to his latest fishing story, there are worse things I could do.

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