Positional power refers to the influence one commands by virtue of his or her title or role within an organization, culture, or other societal structure. Managers typically compete for higher positions and often covet titles, from director to chief.
Developmental psychologists will tell you that we all begin to exhibit our competitive potential and awareness of position and influence from the very beginning of our lives. To objectively observe some managers may even sometimes feel like you are watching kindergarten children compete for the best toy.
If you can land the most important project in the company, then you generally also command the most influence. The power that comes from our positions and roles matters most in terms of our own influence and ability to achieve desired results. You may have limited ability to change your position within a structure, but you have limitless potential to understand and make the most of positional power.
The first step is to assess and understand the positional power you command, as well as that of your colleagues. Correctly assessing your own influence, particularly in relation to others’, will help you understand the extent to which you can make things happen unilaterally and, more importantly, when it is essential to gain the support of others around you. Senior managers command significant positional power, but they actually work hard to gain support from other managers, reserving their more directive actions for situations when it is necessary. Whenever possible, it is always wise to communicate your options, solicit input from colleagues, and operate based on consensus. But there are certainly times when your position really matters.
Some folks are extremely impressed by the rank and position of those around them. When a CIO or CTO joins a call, suddenly everyone straightens up and is highly motivated to find solutions. These folks just may not make the same effort if everyone in the meeting is at their rank. Understanding influence is essential when you need to overcome resistance to change. If you are outgunned and lack sufficient influence, that is very important to recognize as well.
Unfortunately, some people abuse their positional power by creating fear in others. This might seem to work occasionally, but it is usually a terrible way to manage a team, and it frequently leads to significant problems for the organization. The most effective teams have a well-calibrated balance of power and excellent communication, from the senior managers to the line worker performing the detailed tasks. Good IT governance enables important information to be communicated up the chain of command so that decisions can be made based on accurate and up-to-date information. It is important that you fully understand your role and influence at any specific point, which may vary from time to time, sometimes due to factors beyond your control.
You should always begin by clarifying your own goals and objectives with your manager. Sometimes, it is possible to negotiate your title and support structure. Savvy leaders will often ask their staff to write a letter (or email) explaining what they want done and then send it out under the signature of the most senior manager. You may want to put together a few bullets and a draft letter when you meet with your manager to discuss how you can most effectively achieve your objectives. Your manager will likely want to give his or her input before agreeing to send out the letter, but with this approach you now have gained explicit support from someone who has a wider sphere of influence. In this case, you are essentially borrowing your manager’s positional power with his or her consent. This strategy may even symbolically elevate your position within the organization by showing that you have the support of those above you.
However, interestingly enough, sometimes it is actually better when change is initiated from the bottom up. Having a CTO tell the staff to use version control is one thing, but getting four or five knowledgeable colleagues to participate in a bake-off before selecting which version control system to use provides considerable grassroots support. Wise leaders assess and understand positional power, choosing when to influence from the top down and also considering when support is best achieved from those in the trenches who really understand the details of what is going on.
Smart leaders also encourage their subordinates to express their views freely in an honest and open way. It is especially important for people to feel safe when admitting mistakes or delivering bad news. Top managers encourage their staff to give their suggestions on how to deal with issues and solve problems instead of just dumping a problem on their desk. Technical folks sometimes shy away from worrying about positional power in favor of sticking to what they do best. If you want to be successful, understanding and managing your own ability to influence is essential in ensuring that you can achieve your goals.