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How to figure out the power dynamics in a new job

When you join a new organization, it’s important to understand who has the power because they have a direct impact on how work gets done, but it’s not always perfectly clear. In this piece, the author offers strategies to better identify where true power exists. “At first glance at his company, it is natural to assume that those who have ‘boss’ or ‘senior’ in their titles are the ones who dominate the landscape of power,” the author writes. “But this is not always the case.”

Your ultimate success in an organization depends on your ability to execute with and through others. But when starting a new job, it can be hard to figure out who the real power players are and how to approach them.

These influential leaders aren’t always as obvious as those depicted on the company’s website, but they’re still critical to your long-term success. Research shows that during times of transition, such as moving into a new role or company, it is vital to understand the hidden organization chart of networks that actually get the job done regardless of hierarchy.

Follow these five strategies to recognize the lay of the land so you can not only achieve what you need by joining, but ultimately find your own place in the company’s future energy landscape.

Understand the different types of power.

To make an accurate assessment of who has significant influence in your organization, it helps to first understand the different types of power that exist. In 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven defined five bases of power that people use to push others toward desired change: coercive (depending on force); reward (depending on incentives); legitimate (depending on the hierarchy); referent (based on affiliation) and expert (based on knowledge authority). A sixth power base, informational (based on access to scarce data resources), was added some years later in his research.

As you look at power in your organization, you may see even more factors that play a role in who has influence and who doesn’t. One in particular is the reputation of leaders which affects their power and can rise and fall regardless of their place in the hierarchy or their experience in the matter.

For example, an executive leading a division dying toward profitability due to market changes may suddenly enjoy a lot of positive “press” inside and outside the company that heightens his perception of power. Or leaders who are in charge of a company’s core product may be positively associated with the “face” of the company and thus may continue to be seen as influential even during a bad business year.

Identify which people others look to for authority.

Once you understand the many ways power is obtained and used, you can begin to make a list of people who have been successful in using it. Take a look at who wields different modes of power, for example colleagues that everyone seems to know (eg referral power) or who always get approval to do new projects and have the resources to hire more people (eg referral power). information or reward).

Also look out for people who seem to always have others looking to them for help or advice. Research shows that while you can excel at work by reaching out to many people in your network, being wanted by others makes you four times more likely to succeed.

Ask others in your circle questions like, “Who is highly regarded within the company?” or “Who do people here need to know to stand out?” You may also want to research who has been promoted quickly as an indicator of success. And watch the people around you who are being invited to high-visibility meetings, such as board meetings or external events with access to senior leaders and customers.

Recognize situational changes in influence.

Sometimes it may seem like your company’s energy landscape is fixed, but in reality, power is dynamic. For example, in just the last two years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the balance of power in many organizations, with the shift to hybrid working. A recent study showed that in this new work environment, relational power often trumps hierarchical power, so those without a certain title still have a chance to gain influence and those in high-level roles are not guaranteed it. This means that it is important to consider how certain people gain and lose power over time in your company.

For example, I recently coached a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader who historically had limited visibility beyond her HR team. But after George Floyd, she found herself getting offers to take on DEI roles at dozens of companies where she would report directly to the CEO.

Similarly, I worked with a director in charge of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) within the finance division of his company who was suddenly elevated to a C-level position. As more investors, clients and employees demanded an ESG strategy in recent years, his experience unexpectedly brought him more influence within the company.

Look beyond the obvious pockets of power.

At first glance at your company, it’s natural to assume that those with “boss” or “senior” in their titles are the ones who dominate the power landscape. But this is not always the case.

I once worked with the executive team of a major hospital system with physicians who were often the only ones able to perform a rare procedure for which patients would travel all over the world. You can guess that these doctors wielded a great deal of power in the organization. However, if you ask the leadership team who is really pulling the strings, it is the nurses. They were the ones who saw themselves as the engine of excellence behind the work of the doctors. So if you were a new hire and ignored building partnerships with the nursing organization because you believed doctors and executives were the most important, you would have made a huge mistake in your plan for success.

It’s also important to look at the white spaces between departments in your organization where hidden power often exists. Remember that as companies become more customer-oriented, work is done across the board, not just across each vertical. As a result, those who are successful in creating networks that bridge the gaps between silos often have significant influence.

I saw this up close with a client who was a newly hired VP managing a multi-million dollar product line. He initially felt that the people with the most power over his success were his boss, his boss’s boss (the CEO), and the sales leaders who met with the biggest clients in his business. But over time he recognized that there was power among key internal colleagues who didn’t even know the customer but were critical to meeting the customer’s needs. They were the leaders of supply chain, engineering, and other shared services who, with one call, could prioritize the needs of the VP’s product line over others or push them to the back of the queue.

Let relationships with powerful colleagues multiply through curiosity and generosity.

Once you’ve understood the power landscape at your company, it’s time to get on the radar of some of these influential peers. But you will need to set yourself apart from the many others who generally approach them all the time. The best way to get powerful people to spend time with you is to employ a humble desire to learn from them, mixed with an energetic desire to offer something of value without a selfish agenda.

And then when you meet this colleague, don’t try to accomplish too much; do enough to show curiosity and generosity to the point where you would enjoy taking his call again. Over time, you can ask them who else they think they should meet. And they may even offer to make a warm introduction on your behalf to a powerful person in their circle.

When you join a new organization, it’s important to understand who has the power because they have a direct impact on how work gets done, but it’s not always perfectly clear. Follow these strategies to better identify where the real power exists and eventually develop your future position of influence in the company.

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