Too many people rely on the legitimacy of position or regulations as their source of power. They ignore the other sources of power built on good ideas, communicated clearly with passion and humility. I was brought to this observation from two disconnected events; Al Gore’s sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize and facilitating a role play of some mines’ inspectors this week.
In the two part negotiation role play, I had separated experienced mines’ inspectors and made them play the role of a quarry owner. The inexperienced inspectors played the role of the inspectors.
The scenario in the first part appeared to lay the power at the feet of the quarry owners. However, there was room for the inspectors to access power and use it. As the role play unfolded the quarry owners utilised their source of power well. The result of the negotiation was lopsided in their favour.
The second part of the role play added some new information whilst moving the time scale ahead six months. The new information laid all the power at the feet of the inspectors. It included regulation breaches which could cause jail time for the quarry owners. In preparation for the role play the quarry owners were preparing for one shot and then roll over.
What I observed unfold was the primacy of the power of mastery of the topic over the power of legitimacy. The experienced inspectors playing the quarry owners used their knowledge and experience to bamboozle the less experienced inspectors. The observation was not about the role play anymore but real life exercise of power.
Power for many of us, appears to come from position and authority or legitimacy. But it is not the be all and end all of power. We each have sources of power which we do not tap. Or we have sources of power which we neglect to develop.
Take Al Gore as an example. When he was vice president he held the power of legitimacy. The power he held existed because of his position. Whilst he held other sources of power such as the ability to reward and the capacity to coerce, one could argue that legitimacy was his dominant source of power.
When he was a candidate for the presidency his power source was still dominantly one of legitimacy, albeit at a lower level than when he was vice president.
When he lost the election, his power base diminished overnight.
The power he had in the broad community had fallen to a low level. He had no legitimate power. He had no referent power, being the butt of jokes on Letterman and Leno. He certainly had no power of mastery of a topic other than himself.
Gore became a bit of a recluse. He then started working in some visiting professorships, travelling the speaking circuit and writing his memoirs.During this time however, he began talking about climate change. He used a slide show to talk about a topic he was passionate about.
Then, as now, many people were talking about climate change. Scientists lined up on both sides of the argument of whether increasing global temperatures were man made or part of a natural cycle that included ice ages and high sea levels.
However, the scientists did not cut through. What Gore did was to translate their knowledge into information that unqualified people could understand. His use of information became a source of power. What was critical to the information being a source of power was that he used it in such a way that people understood it. Communication is about the receiving of information, not the sending.
Since then Gore’s slide show has become a documentary. He has won a Best Documentary Academy Award for the movie. His speaking circuit and circle of influence has expanded. Gore now has the power of an expert, which has been magnified by his sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.
Undoubtedly during the time since his vice presidential days when Gore was seen as a bit of a wooden character, he has gathered a high level of referent power amongst a large proportion of the global population. He is seen now as likeable and charismatic. His self deprecating humour and his articulated passion for his topic, have gained him fans all over the world.
Gore is a living laboratory on the sources of power. The lessons to be learnt from Gore can be taken back to our workplace.
What sources of power do we use at work? Are we too reliant on legitimacy as our source of power?
Gore gives us the lesson.
Ideas form a base from which we can build our power. Communicate those ideas clearly, consistently and persistently, in a manner that deprecates our role and emphasises what we can do together. Demonstrate integrity by marrying our words and deeds into one.
Referent power will build from people’s affinity for us as a person. Affinity comes from our ability to engage them in the cause by accepting and acknowledging their suggestions to improve our ideas. Referent power is maintained by our congruence of words and actions.
Information power builds from our ability to communicate. Expert power may well build from our ability to share the information we hold about our ideas.
Whether we are involved in a project, negotiating a deal or implementing a new vision, building power from strong ideas clearly communicated with humility is much more effective than relying on legitimacy alone.