Under the Influence – Power, Influence and Relationships

Dear Auntie,

I like a drink. I won’t deny it. But it’s all about moderation.

When I’m flat on my face in a gutter having consumed half a cellar full of strong ale and a wee snifter of Talisker, I know that I don’t command the respect of my colleagues or have any positive influence over them.

But if I’ve had a small glass of chardonnay with a meal, my balance isn’t impaired and I can function well.

It’s not comfortable being under the influence of anything, whether it’s alcohol or someone else. To be under the influence means to be out of control, and studies show that people who don’t feel in control are more prone to serious illness.

So my ambition is to have influence but to find a way to use it wisely. I don’t want to exert my influence at the expense of others. I really don’t want my colleagues to feel out of control. I just want to find a way to stop feeling so useless.

What can you suggest?


Address withheld.

Dear Reader

Your dilemma is prescient, and your ambition is laudable.


Perhaps it was easier in the ‘good old days’. Everyone knew where they stood. You doffed your cap to your manager; you prostrated yourself at the feet of the Chairman of the Board; you expected to be told what to do by those with higher levels of authority: after all that’s why they got paid so much more than you.

Power, authority, influence: these used to be the preserve of the elder. A condition of social infrastructure based on natural deference to more senior generations meant that benefits could be bestowed on you by virtue of seniority alone and often formalised by promotion in rank. It’s still like this in some parts of the world, but less so.

Just look at some of the titles our lords and masters held (or hold).

  1. Fore-man

  2. Super-visor

  3. Team Leader

  4. Prime Minister

  5. Chief Operating officer

The name is tantamount to saying, “You’re top dog”, “You’re now better than the rest”.  After all, you can only be in the lead if you’re out in front.

So it’s an easy leap to make that having been afforded this privilege, you might now consider yourself better than others; it’s implied that you will make better decisions, you will be more valuable and significant, and that people should listen to you…and do what you say. The role has given you that right. You’ve earned it.

This is a flawed old model in so many ways, not least from a philosophical and moral perspective. But even without these flaws, it simply doesn’t work in practice anymore: because having the Power of Position isn’t enough to get the job done, and it has nothing to do with age.

There are some persistent pockets of people across western economies who continue to hanker for the clarity of old that provided a simple template for their interactions at work. But these pockets have grown smaller and the holes in them bigger. Now it is only really possible to hold on to this dream by clenching your fists in defiance as you stubbornly sink them further into those retreating pockets.

FORMAL AUTHORITY: not all it’s cracked up to be

It is true that people by virtue of hierarchy, are still afforded a level of Formal Authority or Power. This power is the right, through position or status, to make decisions, and is conferred on them by higher management: the higher in the hierarchy, the greater the decision-making authority.

This power is not in contention here, nor is the right to it. But power resulting from formal authority is seldom sufficient on its own.

Power depends on seniors, juniors and peers accepting your right and ability to take control, and we are unlikely to accept this on the basis of formal authority alone. Wearing a badge saying, ‘I’m a manager, I’ve got power’ won’t cut much ice with most of us unless we see some real substance behind it.

So other types of power need to be drawn upon.

Most people who obviously have a high status or position prefer to use a combination of different types of power bases.  They recognise that relying solely on Formal Authority is rather like the Parent who relies on the ‘because I say so’ method of persuasion. For those of us who are parents we probably share the same view as to how effective that is! I.e. Not very!

We all have power, if we want to use it.

The good news is that most of us (if not all of us) have some power in one form or another within our working lives. Organisational power-politics is seldom a one-way street.

I am not talking about having power over people here. This isn’t about getting one up on someone else, or about elevating your status at the expense of others. This isn’t a competition.

Instead, I believe we all have ‘power in-relation to people.’  That is, our power-base is formed by the way we relate to others and is dependent on the flow of power coming back to us from them. That means it is a power that can be held by anyone and everyone without the need to be appointed to a senior position.

If this is true, there’s a lot more potential to be realised in our organisations, and in the way people work and interact with each other.

The Cards You Can Play

Think for a moment about why people might follow you or listen to you or take you seriously.

  1.  They might follow you because they have to (Power by Position), probably because they are afraid or feel helpless.

  2. They might follow you because they want to (Power by Consent); because life is easier that way or they want to give you a chance.

  3. They might follow you because of what you have done for the organisation (Power earned through Productivity) which suggests that you might know what you are doing.

  4. They might follow you for what you have done for them (Power earned through People Development), which builds loyalty and gratitude.

  5. They might follow you because of who you are and what you represent (Power flowing from Character), because they basically like you.

On this last note, it’s worth recalling a story that Lee Iacocca tells about his time and ignominious departure from Ford.

He was a very successful CEO of Ford, steering the company from being a poor performing operation to a $2 billion operating profit. As such, he was highly regarded (Power earned through Productivity & Position)

Technically and intellectually he was gifted, bright, and confident and he delivered. He was passionate, determined, straight talking, direct, he got things done – he knew how to make an organisation very successful …and did so.

In his 1984 autobiography (Iacocca-An Autobiography) he wrote of the hard lesson he learned when he was surprisingly fired by Henry Ford. Given his huge success in the role he asked why he was being sacked. He was told, “We just don’t like you anymore”

Even though Iacocca defended his position, quoting facts and figures to illustrate what he had achieved, Henry Ford replied “Lee you are absolutely right, but you forget I am the boss and I just don’t like you anymore”

He didn’t have the Power of Consent or the Power of Character, and these turned out to be more important that all the rest, (except for Henry Ford in this case who relied on good old-fashioned Power by Position!)

So think about what cards you can play. What do you have within your make-up and within your role that affords you some of the power which you can use to:

  1. increase your influence

  2.  generate better relationships

  3. maximise your potential

  4. and allow you to have more meaningful interactions with all your colleagues irrespective of where they sit in the hierarchy

How many of the following cards do you have or could you obtain?

Expertise: I’m good at what I do and people need my skills

Resource Control: I have access to things and information that people might need

Communication Skills: People find me interesting, friendly & articulate; and they want to do business with me.

Many of us have a combination of types of power flowing in both directions.  Even if we hold apparently lowly positions, we can have strong influence and a powerful role to play in our manager’s ability to deliver, and in the way we conduct business with our stakeholders.

Review yourself against these three Ace cards. Are you playing with a full deck?


This is the specialist knowledge, skills and understanding, which you have acquired through professional training either inside or outside the organisation. For example, the company lawyer or accountant can acquire power and influence because there are few others who can do what they do.

By becoming a specialist (expert) at what you do within the organisation, be it IT, Teaching, Customer Service, Sales or any other line of work, you gain power because you have something that is precious to others.

Ask Yourself: What expertise do you have and what new expertise could you develop?


This power is the control of physical, financial or information resources of the organisation, and what’s interesting here is that people in relatively low formal authority positions can have considerable resource control.

One of the most powerful people in an organisation is the switchboard operator or receptionist, or a PA, or the person who allocates car parking spaces. The most power however, goes to those who control the most valued resources – particularly money and information.

Ask yourself: What resource control do you have, and who has resource control in relation to you?


This power flows from your ability to build and develop good relationships; the ability to influence, to persuade, to communicate well, to motivate yourself and others, to delegate effectively, to negotiate fairly, to be assertive, to anticipate and tackle problems before they can damage the organisation and the people, to show compassion. This power doesn’t only depend on personal flair and innate suaveness. It can also be developed through training and practice.

Ask yourself: What personal skills do you already have, and what personal skills do you wish to develop?

So Dear Reader…

We are all happier when we can achieve a balance of power, and problems can be starkly highlighted when you observe an imbalance.

Look at the balance of power in different relationships you have and you will see that the relationships which cause you grief are the ones where there is an imbalance. These are the relationships where you feel less in relation them; where you feel undermined, undervalued, and irrelevant.

By contrast, the relationships you value are the ones where you feel a sense of equality, respect, shared understanding or interest, and a right to be there.

People need you as much as you need them, and by relying on the whole gamut of resources that you have in your armoury, you will be able to re-balance. The result can be less wobbling and dizziness from being under the influence, and more equilibrium from having influence.

Power might afford privileges but even more so, it comes with responsibilities. We can choose to use this power to make ourselves strong (like Lee Iacocca, maybe) or to make others weak.

But much better to use all your power in relation to others wisely, in a way that makes everyone a balanced contributor.

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